The Benefits of Breastfeeding: Longer Telomeres for Longevity

The vast benefits of breastfeeding are extraordinary. It seems every year there are new discoveries about how breastfeeding protects our babies in incredible ways throughout their lifetimes. That’s why we consider breastfeeding the greatest gift of health a mom can offer.

Exciting new research sheds new light into why breastfeeding reduces risk of certain terminal diseases and contributes to longevity. You may have known that lowered risk of heart disease, certain types of cancers and diabetes are on the list of benefits of breastfeeding. This is both a short term and long term advantage of breastfeeding. But do you know why? Researchers now believe it has to do with the effects of breastfeeding on DNA.

The Benefits of Breastfeeding: Longer Telomeres for LongevityA recent study followed babies whose mothers exclusively breastfed for at least 4-6 (which is only a fraction of the APA’s recommendation of 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding) weeks. When the children were between 4 and 5 years old, the researchers measured their telomeres, which are parts of DNA that cap off chromosome cells. Telomeres protect cells from being damaged by free radicals, inflammation, and other foreign pathogens. The results showed that breastfed babies had 5% longer telomeres than non-breastfed children. And any amount of breastfeeding, even less than 4 weeks of exclusive breastfeeding, showed somewhat longer telomeres than non-breasted children.

Diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancers are often a result of inflammation. With longer telomeres, cells are stronger and less likely to be affected by potential threats and mutation. Plus, breastfeeding helps to safeguard against other risk factors for disease such as obesity and promotes a healthy immune system and microbiome. Additionally, breastfed babies take fewer antibiotics.

Telomeres usually shorten with age as evidenced by shorter telomeres in the adult population. There is some speculation, however, that telomeres may shorten within early childhood. Getting the best start in life through breastfeeding may contribute to longevity as cells retain their strength with age.

The study was done on a group of low-income Latina women and their babies. This somewhat homogenous group helps eliminate extraneous variables since breastfeeding is more common in higher income more educated families therefore skewing data in breastfeeding research. However, telomeres were not measured in the babies at birth so it is unknown whether the children were born with longer telomeres or they were a direct result of breastfeeding. Also, telomeres may contribute to success in breastfeeding.

Nonetheless, this research is encouraging as yet another example of the benefits of breastfeeding. Your loving gift of today may mean a longer, healthier life for your children in years to come.

Sources: University of California San Francisco and NY Times