Monday, March 1, 2004

Children who were breast-fed as infants tend to have lower blood pressure than those who were bottle-fed, a long-term British study has found.

The new study, published in the journal Circulation, is just the latest in a long list of medical benefits that have been attributed to breast-feeding in recent decades. The benefits have prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to advise mothers to breast-feed exclusively for the baby’s first six months of life.

The group sets no ceiling for when to stop breast-feeding.

The findings, discovered by a team of researchers at the University of Bristol, are significant, since lower blood pressure is directly linked to a lower risk of heart disease — the industrialized world’s No. 1 killer — as well as a lower risk of stroke and kidney disease.

“Hypertension is the underlying problem” in these diseases, said Dr. Ruth Lawrence, professor of pediatrics and obstetrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York.

Dr. Lawrence said there have been other studies that have looked for a link between breast milk and a healthy heart. “The research all comes together to suggest that human milk, early in life, impacts a lot of … health menaces … including cardiovascular disease,” she said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Dr. Lawrence said previous research has shown that breast-fed children “do better mentally and intellectually” than bottle-fed youngsters. “The infection protection provided by breast milk is well-documented throughout the world,” she said.

The National Women’s Health Information Center, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said that children who breast-feed exclusively for the first six months of their lives are less likely to develop ear infections, respiratory illness and obesity.

The British study, led by Richard Martin, senior lecturer in epidemiology and public health at the University of Bristol, examined nearly 4,800 7-year-olds, including some who were breast-fed and others who were bottle-fed.

The researchers found that for every three months a child was breast-fed, his or her systolic blood pressure reading — the top number that tracks the peak pressure at the moment when the heart contracts and pumps out blood into the arteries — declined 0.2 on average.

Breast-feeding did not significantly affect diastolic blood pressure, the lower number, they said. Diastolic pressure is the lowest pressure in the arteries just before the next contraction of the heart.

“Even the small reduction may have important population health implications,” Mr. Martin told Reuters. “A 1 percent reduction in the population systolic blood pressure level is associated with about a 1.5 percent reduction in all-cause mortality.”

He added that such a decrease is equivalent to a reduction in premature deaths of about 8,000 yearly in the United States and 2,000 in the United Kingdom.

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