Babies denied their mothers’ milk are more likely to suffer from chronic inflammation as adults, increasing their chances of disease, disability and early death, a study has found.
Ongoing body-wide inflammation is also associated with low birth weight, the same research showed.
Chronic inflammation, caused by a hyperactive immune system, has been linked to heart disease and strokes, type 2 diabetes, late-life disability, and a greater risk of dying.
The new research found adult levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammation blood marker, rose with shorter durations of breastfeeding in infancy.
Compared with receiving no mothers’ milk at all, being breastfed for less than three months reduced CRP levels by a fifth.
Breastfeeding for three to six months lowered CRP levels by 26.7%, six to 12 months by 29.6%, and more than 12 months by 29.8%.
The effect was at least the same as that produced by treatment with cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, which have been shown to reduce CRP, said the scientists.
Higher birth weight was also associated with lower CRP for individuals who weighed more than 2.5 kilograms when they were born.
CRP was 9.2% greater for those weighing in at 2.8 kilograms than for those born a kilogram heavier.
The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, come from a US study of almost 7,000 US men and women aged 24 to 32. Fewer than half the participants (44.8%) were breastfed for any length of time as infants.
The study authors, led by Dr Thomas McDade from Northwestern University, said: “We present evidence that lower birth weight and shorter durations of breastfeeding both predict elevated concentrations of CRP in young adulthood, indicating increased risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases that are major health burdens in the US and the UK.
“Clinical trials have demonstrated that statin therapy reduces CRP in healthy adults by 14.8-17.4%. Our results suggest that the effects of breastfeeding on adult CRP are comparable, or larger, in magnitude.”
Consumption of breast milk may have lasting effects on inflammation by shaping regulatory biological pathways during sensitive phases of immune development, said the scientists.
The Department of Health recommends exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of a baby’s life.
Thereafter, mothers are encouraged to continue feeding their babies breast milk alongside solid food into at least their second year.
“Efforts to improve birth outcomes, and to increase the initiation and duration of breastfeeding in accordance with current recommendations, may reduce levels of chronic inflammation in adulthood and lower risk for chronic degenerative diseases of ageing,” the researchers concluded.
- Read the full study paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B