Breastfeeding may lower risk of childhood leukemia, study says

By Colleen Cappon

From preventing allergies to combating obesity, countless studies have touted the health benefits of breastfeeding. Now new research published by JAMA Pediatrics suggests a lower risk of childhood leukemia can be added to the list.

A study from the University of Haifa in Israel found breastfeeding for six months or more was linked with a 19 percent lower risk of childhood leukemia compared to children who were breastfed for a shorter time, or never at all.

The research was led by Dr. Eftrat Amitay, epidemiologist and researcher at the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa, who reviewed the evidence of 18 major studies comparing breastfeeding and childhood cancer rates from North America, Europe, New Zealand, Turkey, South Eastern Arabia and China.

Leukemia is the most common cancer in children and teens, accounting for almost one out of three cancers. According to Amitay, the incidence rate is growing by about 0.9 percent each year and it is still a leading cause of death among children. Little is known about the cause of the disease.

Amitay told that the data showed several biological elements of breast milk that may explain the lower risk association, like anti-inflammatory defense mechanisms and components that strengthen the immune system.

“Maternal antibodies, lactoferrin that can destroy microbes and reduce inflammatory response and Human α-lactalbumin (HAMLET) that kill tumor cells and breast-milk stem cells that have properties similar to embryonic stem cells and may provide active immunity in the infant’s body,” she said.

Current recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization are to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months of life. Amitay told she supports these guidelines, but thinks more needs to be done for breastfeeding education.

“Breastfeeding is a low-cost, highly-accessible public health measure to potentially lower the risk for a serious disease,” she said. “I hope policy makers will act more to promote and encourage breastfeeding by educating health professionals on how to assist mothers with breastfeeding, by disseminating the information on the benefits of breastfeeding and by making it more socially acceptable.”

As far as having the same effect on similar diseases, Amitay said some studies have also found and association between breastfeeding and lower risk for childhood lymphoma but the results were less significant. But, she emphasized breastfeeding has already been shown in numerous studies to lower the risk of other major health issues like celiac disease, diabetes, respiratory tract and gastrointestinal infections, obesity and SIDS. Breastfeeding has also been found to lower the breastfeeding mother’s risk for breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers.

“I think more research is needed exploring the properties of breast milk that may be associated with lower risk for leukemia, as they may have implication not only for the prevention of childhood leukemia but also for prevention and treatment of other types of cancer,” she said.

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