Alzheimer’s and dementia runs pretty strongly in my father’s family and he’s afraid that one day he’ll develop Alzheimer’s as well. Unfortunately, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but for women there is a possibility of reducing the risk through breastfeeding.

A new report published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease suggests that the biological effects of breastfeeding may be directly related to preventing Alzheimer’s in women who are prone to developing the disorder later in life. The study that examined this relationship was fairly small and used only 81 women from England. Despite this, researchers perceived a highly significant and consistent connection between breastfeeding and Alzheimer's risk.

Dr. Molly Fox from the Department of Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge led the study and commented that "Alzheimer's is the world's most common cognitive disorder and it already affects 35.6 million people. In the future, we expect it to spread most in low and middle-income countries. So it is vital that we develop low-cost, large-scale strategies to protect people against this devastating disease."

The study presented a new opportunity to explore what makes someone susceptible to Alzheimer’s to begin with. It’s also an incentive for mothers to choose to breastfeed rather than bottle feed their infants. Other studies conducted in the past have shown that breastfeeding can decrease a mother’s risk of developing other diseases and disorders later in life. However, until now, little research has been done to link the development of Alzheimer’s or even general cognitive decline with breastfeeding.

For the study, 81 British women between the ages of 70 and 100 were interviewed. Some women had Alzheimer’s and some did not. In some cases, family members and spouses helped answer the interview questions. The interviews included questions about the women’s reproductive history, whether or not they breastfed or how long they breastfed for, and their dementia status. Other medical history was also collected such as information about any stroke or brain tumors. The information compiled was compared with the women’s breastfeeding history.

From the results, researchers found that the women who breastfed were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and the longer the women breastfed, the more the risk decreased. They also found that women who had a higher ratio of total months pregnant during their life to total months spent breastfeeding had an increased risk of Alzheimer's. This is because pregnancy decreases insulin tolerance and breastfeeding restores it and Alzheimer’s is characterized by an insulin tolerance in the brain.

Source: University of Cambridge (2013, August 5). Breastfeeding may reduce Alzheimer's Risk. Science Daily.