Breastfeeding for Six Months Can Significantly Cut Risk of Cancer Death—As Can Less Alcohol and Staying in Shape, Study Finds

Breastfeeding is good for you, study says. Photo: Getty Images/Vicky Kasala ProductionsWomen still confused by the breast milk vs. formula debate may want to listen up, as a new study has found exclusively breastfeeding your baby for at least six months could cut your chances of dying from cancer and all other diseases by 17 percent—and death by heart disease alone by 8 percent.

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The mass study, published online Wednesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined breastfeeding and other lifestyle recommendations from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and its umbrella World Cancer Research Fund International and their effects on nearly 380,000 people in several European countries over 13 years.

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It found that both women and men could cut their risk of death on average by a third, simply by adhering to one or several healthy lifestyle choices: keeping lean but not underweight, eating a plant-based diet, being active for at least 30 minutes daily, avoiding sugary drinks and highly caloric foods, lowering meat intake, and limiting alcohol intake.

But findings on the additional breastfeeding recommendation for women represented perhaps the freshest recommendation in the mix.

“No previous study has investigated the association between breastfeeding and mortality in the mother,” lead researcher Anne-Claire Vergnaud told Yahoo! Shine. Dr. Vergnaud, of London’s Imperial College faculty of medicine, added that a previous study found “failure to breastfeed” related to an increased risk of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes and other conditions.

There are several connections between breastfeeding and longevity, AICR Director of Research Susan Higginbotham explained to Yahoo! Shine. "Longer breastfeeding means fewer menstrual cycles and reduced lifetime exposure to the hormonal factors, especially estrogen, that influence breast cancer risk," she said. "Physical changes in breast tissue that accompany milk production provide some protection as well." She added, that the shedding of breast tissue during lactation and the cell death after also decrease cancer risk, "because cells have potential DNA damage get shed before they can spark the cancer process."

There are even benefits for the baby, Dr. Higginbotham said, as breastfeeding decreases the likelihood that a child will be overweight during early adulthood, and being obese or overweight are major risk factors for seven different kinds of cancer.

Currently, only 16 percent of women in the U.S. exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months, according to the CDC. That percentage jumps to 36 for those exclusively breastfeeding for three months, and 47 for those who breastfeed for six months but combine it with using other nutrition sources.

For the study, researchers examined the data from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC), one of the world’s largest ongoing studies of diet, lifestyle and cancer. At the end of the study, nearly 24,000 participants had died of various causes. Participants in the highest healthy-lifestyle score category (5-6 points for men, 6-7 points for women) had a 34 percent lower chance of death than those in the lowest category (0-2 points for men, 0-3 points for women).

But even adhering to just one of the lifestyle recommendations—developed by AICR and WCRF in 2007—can save your life, according to the report. Maintaining a healthy BMI, for example, can lower your risk of disease-caused mortality by 22 percent, while eating a plant-based diet can lower it by 21 percent.

“We’ve known for years that following AICR’s lifestyle advice could cut the worldwide incidence of cancer cases by about one-third,” Dr. Higginbotham said of the study results. “Today we have evidence on mortality, which shows that this same practical advice could also save millions of lives from cancer and other chronic diseases around the world.”

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