These findings will be welcome news for parents of the 1 in 10 infants who are born prematurely in the United States each year, as many of these infants experience problems with heart development.
Studies have shown that such developmental problems occur in the first few months of life, leading to smaller heart chambers, thickening of the heart muscle, and reduced heart function in later life.
Research has also suggested that breast-feeding has an array of health benefits for infants, including reduced risk of asthma, childhood obesity, childhood leukemia, eczema, and ear infections.
Could breast-feeding also benefit the long-term heart health of preterm infants? This is what Dr. Adam Lewandowski, of the Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and colleagues wanted to find out.
The researchers recently published their findings in the journal Pediatrics.
Better adult heart health for preterm infants with exclusive breast-feeding
For their study, the team enrolled 102 adults in their early to mid-20s who, since birth, had been part of an earlier study that assessed how different infant feeding practices influenced health.
“We invited individuals who had been followed up throughout life to come to Oxford for a detailed cardiovascular study and used this information to investigate how different feeding regimes could affect the development of the heart in the long term,” explains Dr. Lewandowski.
For comparison, the team enrolled a further 102 adults of a similar age who were born at full term.
As expected, the researchers found that adults who had been born preterm had reduced heart volume and poorer heart function, compared with those who had been born at full term.
However, they found that adults born preterm who had been exclusively breast-fed as an infant had better heart volume and function than those who had been formula-fed.
Furthermore, among adults born preterm who had been fed a combination of breast milk and formula as an infant, those who consumed more breast milk than formula were found to have better heart structure and function in adulthood.
The researchers say the association between breast-feeding and better later-life heart health remained after accounting for various influential factors.
Overall, the authors say their results indicate that breast-feeding may have long-term benefits for the hearts of preterm infants.