Breastfeeding a baby may reduce a woman's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
The report, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, suggests that the link may be to do with certain biological effects of breastfeeding. For example, breastfeeding restores insulin tolerance which is significantly reduced during pregnancy, and Alzheimer's is characterized by insulin resistance in the brain.
Although they used data gathered from a very small group of just 81 British women, the researchers observed a highly significant and consistent correlation between breastfeeding and Alzheimer's risk. They argue that this was so strong that any potential sampling error was unlikely.
At the same time, however, the connection was much less pronounced in women who already had a history of dementia in their family. The research team hopes that the study -- which was intended merely as a pilot -- will stimulate further research looking at the relationship between female reproductive history and disease risk.
The findings may point towards new directions for fighting the global Alzheimer's epidemic -- especially in developing countries where cheap, preventative measures are desperately needed.
More broadly, the study opens up new lines of inquiry in understanding what makes someone susceptible to Alzheimer's in the first place. It may also act as an incentive for women to breastfeed, rather than bottle-feed -- something which is already known to have wider health benefits for both mother and child.
Dr. Molly Fox, from the Department of Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: "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 we must develop low-cost, large-scale strategies to protect people against this devastating disease."