Women who breastfeed for 15 months or longer may have a lower risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) than those who breastfeed for shorter periods or not at all, according to a recent study. The study also suggests that women who had their first period at age 15 or older are less likely to develop MS.
The findings were reported in the study, “Breastfeeding, ovulatory years, and risk of multiple sclerosis,” published recently in the journal Neurology.
Previous studies have shown that breastfeeding is associated with several health benefits for women.
“This is another example of a benefit to the mother from breastfeeding,” Annette Langer-Gould, MD, PhD, the study’s lead author, said in a news release. “Other health benefits include a reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart attack.”
Previous studies have reported that certain reproductive factors, such as pregnancy, gestational age, age at first period, and use of contraceptives, may influence the development of MS. According to researchers, MS mainly affects women during childbearing years (it rarely occurs before a woman’s first period or after menopause), but the risk of this disease significantly decreases during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
“Many experts have suggested that the levels of sex hormones are responsible for these findings, but we hypothesized that the lack of ovulation may play a role, so we wanted to see if having a longer time of breastfeeding or fewer total years when a woman is ovulating could be associated with the risk of MS,” Langer-Gould said.
The study enrolled 397 women newly diagnosed with MS (or its precursor, clinically isolated syndrome, CIS) and 433 age- and race-matched individuals. Researchers asked participants to complete a questionnaire and provide data on pregnancies, breastfeeding, hormonal contraceptive use, age at first period and menopause, and amenorrhea (absence of period).
Results showed that among those who had successful deliveries, healthy women who breastfed their children for 15 months or more (85 women) were 53% less prone to developing MS or CIS compared to MS patients (44) who had breastfed for only four months or not at all.
“This study provides more evidence that women who are able to breastfeed their infants should be supported in doing so,” Langer-Gould said. “Among the many other benefits to the mother and the baby, breastfeeding may reduce the mother’s future risk of developing MS.”
Also, healthy women who had their first period at the age of 15 or older (44 women) had a 44% lower risk of developing MS later in life, compared to those who had their first period at a younger age (27 women with MS).
Other reproductive factors, such as number of pregnancies, episodes of amenorrhea, and use of contraceptives were not associated with MS/CIS risk.