Alzheimer's disease is a terrible condition marked by the progressive loss of memory and ability to perform daily tasks. The buildup of short protein peptides, known as beta amyloid, is thought to cause the memory-robbing disease, but the initiating factor of the accumulation is unknown. Moreover, it is in dispute as to whether the accumulation itself is the cause of the disease. Scientists and doctors know little as to what can help stave off the disease. But, in looking at correlations between the disease and various factors, a research group in the UK has found a link between breastfeeding and a woman's Alzheimer's risk.

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The research, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, details a study in which 81 women were observed to have a lower risk of the disease if they had breastfed infants. Women who had no history of dementia in their families saw the best benefit, while those with a family history of dementia saw a decreased benefit. Because breastfeeding would be an easy and cheap way to prevent Alzheimer's in women, this is already seen as a possible prophylactic in women, particularly for those in developing countries.

"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's lead author Dr. Molly Fox, from the Department of Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, said in a press release.

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The study opens up some interesting questions about Alzheimer's disease. It is known that Alzheimer's is characterized by insulin resistance in the brain, with some scientists calling it type 3 diabetes. Breastfeeding restores insulin tolerance in women who typically become insulin-resistant during pregnancy, which can result in gestational diabetes.

Three main conclusions were garnered from the study:

  • Women who breastfed exhibited a reduced Alzheimer's disease risk, compared with women who did not breastfeed.
  • Longer breastfeeding history was significantly associated with a lower Alzheimer's risk.
  • Women who had a higher ratio of total months pregnant during their lives to total months breastfeeding had a higher Alzheimer's risk.

"Women who spent more time pregnant without a compensatory phase of breastfeeding therefore may have more impaired glucose tolerance, which is consistent with our observation that those women have an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease," Fox concluded.

Source: Fox M, Berzuini C, Knapp L. Maternal Breastfeeding History and Alzheimer's Disease Risk. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. 2013.