Breastfeeding fights chronic disease - research shows

28 July, 2010

Negative attitudes to breastfeeding may have contributed to a rise in chronic disease in Australia, particularly among disadvantaged families, new research shows.

The researchers set out to assess the public health significance of premature weaning of infants from breast milk on the risk of chronic illness later in life.

Dr Julia Smith, from the Australian National University (ANU), said the study mapped the public health impact of premature weaning over the past five decades in Australia.

The researchers found that even now, very few Australian babies are breastfed to six months.

"Depending on how we measure exposures for different types of chronic disease, more than one in ten Australians will face heightened risk in later life because they were not breastfed, many from disadvantaged families," Dr Smith said in a statement on Tuesday.

Research has shown breastfeeding can reduce the long-term risk of chronic disease.

But during the 1960s, 90 per cent of people now aged between 35 and 45 were weaned off breast milk before they were six months old.

This was because "inappropriate and unsupportive" health policies, as well as public attitudes, had undermined breastfeeding in postwar decades, Dr Smith said.

"From what we know about the effects of premature weaning on chronic disease risk, a significant proportion of the current burden of chronic disease might have been avoided," she said.

The research, published earlier this month in the international journal Public Health Nutrition, suggests more should be done to promote breastfeeding past the age of six months to combat the risk of chronic disease in the future.

"Many public health measures to prevent chronic disease are ineffective or expensive to sustain. But being breastfed for a time in infancy reduces the long-term risk of chronic disease," Dr Smith said.

"Few other one-off preventative health interventions shows consistent, long-term effects in reducing chronic disease."

Dr Smith carried out the research with Dr Peta Harvey from ANU's Australian Centre for Economic Research on Health.

Source: AAP NewsWire