Early use of breast milk may help prevent heart disease in prematurely born babies, scientists have found.
The researchers from Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) noted that one of the long-term health complications that young adults born prematurely may have is unique heart characteristics. These can include smaller heart chambers, relatively higher blood pressure, and a disproportionate increase in muscle mass in the heart, the researchers said.
One study cited in the review, published in the journal Pediatric Research, looked at 30 preterm-born adults, who were assigned to receive exclusive human milk during their hospital stay at birth. The study also included 16 preterm-born adults assigned to receive an exclusive formula-based diet.
Both the groups then underwent detailed cardiovascular assessment between 23 and 28 years of age, including an MRI scan of their hearts. The hearts of those born prematurely had smaller chambers than the hearts in people who were not born early, the researchers said.
However, the study showed that the smaller heart chambers were less profound for the exclusively human milk-fed group, compared to those who were fed only formula milk. This suggests a potentially protective effect of human milk for heart structure, the researchers said. They then identified possible reasons for why breast milk results in a lower risk of heart disease.
Breast milk could help prevent heart disease by better regulating hormones and growth factors, strengthening the infant’s immune system, reducing inflammation, and by possibly improving the metabolism of the child. Identifying the key components within breast milk that result in improved heart health could pave the way for a more targeted approach to long-term cardiovascular well being for those born prematurely, according to the researchers.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that premature birth results in long-term adverse cardiovascular effects with important clinical consequences. There is a distinct lack of preventative and therapeutic interventions available to alleviate those effects,” said Professor Afif EL-Khuffash, from RCSI.
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“The current evidence comes from observational studies and highlights the strong link between early breast milk administrations and improvement in long-term heart health, but it lacks concrete mechanistic explanations,” EL-Khuffash said in a statement.
The researchers said more studies on the composition of breast milk could make clear exactly what causes these health benefits, which may lead to better treatment options.