Breast-feeding's other benefit

NOTTINGHAM, ENGLAND--Every mother knows that breast-feeding is good for babies. But for years, researchers have puzzled over the question of whether it also protects moms against breast cancer. Now a study indicates that women who breast-feed before the age of 36 do reduce their risk--even when breastfeeding lasts for only a few months.

Epidemiologist Clair Chilvers, of the University of Nottingham Medical School, interviewed 1,510 women of similar age, half of whom had been diagnosed with breast cancer before age 36 and half of whom were cancer free. After accounting for differences in the age at which the women began menstruating and their family history of breast cancer, Chilvers found that women who breastfed for just three months reduced their risk of breast cancer by 6 percent.

Previous studies showed that breast-feeding had either no effect or that its effect was limited to women who breastfed for a total of at least 72 months, spanning several pregnancies. But Chilvers's findings are in line with several recent Western studies that show a modest reduction in risk for young women who breast-feed. The protective effect is evident in the years following childbirth, but seems to fade as women age.

Researchers can't yet explain why breast-feeding seems to benefit younger women. But because high levels of estrogen are linked to breast cancer, they suspect that the drop in estrogen during breast-feeding prevents tumors from developing.

The findings, Chilvers says, are good news for new moms who work. 'Women needn't feel like they have to breastfeed for months and months," she says.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A baby.

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by Ingfei Chen, Katherine Griffin and Rick Weiss

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