They found that 32 percent of the women who had not breast-fed had coronary artery calcification, compared with 17 percent of the breast-feeding moms. The researchers found calcifications in 39 percent of the aortas of women who hadn't breast-fed, versus 17 percent of the women who had. They also found plaque deposits in the carotid artery of 18 percent of the women who had not breast-fed and 10 percent of those who had.
After adjusting the data for socioeconomic status, family history and lifestyle factors, heart disease risk factors and body mass, the researchers concluded that women who had not breast-fed were five times more likely to have aortic calcifications than women who consistently breast-fed.
Schwarz said the researchers suspect that the apparent benefit from breast-feeding on later heart health stems from how a woman's body stores fat and how that fat is released -- or not released -- after pregnancy.
"A woman's body expects to go through pregnancy and then lactation," Schwarz explained. "During pregnancy, a woman's body stores fat that it expects to release during lactation. If women don't breast-feed, then the body has to deal with excessive fat."
The bottom line is that "it's really important to try to breast-feed," she said. "If you can breast-feed for three months after each pregnancy, your blood vessels are likely to be in better shape down the road."
She added that women who can't breast-feed for three months ought to try for at least a little while. "Some women may feel overwhelmed by some of the long-term breast-feeding recommendations," Schwarz said. "Our study looked at three months, but if that's not possible, the longer you can stick with it, the better."
Dr. Catherine McNeal, an associate professor of medicine and a specialist in cardiovascular disease prevention at Scott & White Healthcare, said she agrees that a decrease in fat mass af
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