A US study found that infants who were breastfed for under three months and weighed under 6.2lbs at birth had a raised the risk of chronic inflammation in adulthood.
These adults had higher levels of CRP, a key biomarker for inflammation. Chronic inflammation is linked to the development of atherosclerosis, a key factor in many vascular diseases.
Researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois examined data from 6,951 adults aged 24 to 32 taking part in a longitudinal study on adolescent health. They measured blood samples to determine CRP levels and compared these between adults.
The researchers found that for each pound of extra birth weight, CRP levels fell 5%. Similarly, those who had breastfed for three to 12 months had CRP levels 20-30% lower than those not breastfed for this length of time.
'Major risk factor'
Researchers said breastfeeding helps immune development and affects metabolic processes that influence obesity, which can in turn impact adult CRP levels.
Dr Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Maryland, US, said: ‘This research helps us understand and appreciate the importance of breastfeeding, especially for low-weight infants. The results suggest that breastfeeding may reduce a major risk factor for heart disease, well into adulthood.’
Lead author Professor Thomas McDade from Northwestern University said the research made a ‘strong case’ for investing in interventions early in life to reverse social disparities in adult health.