02/17/2012 08:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2012

Breastfeeding Has Heart and Can Save Yours

Heart attacks mostly affect men, right? Wrong. Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women, just as it is men. One in three American deaths is from heart disease or stroke. This equates to about 2,200 deaths per day, according to the CDC. In addition to February being American Heart Month, the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women initiative places special attention on raising awareness and fighting heart disease in women.

In light of these statistics, it is important to take care of your heart, no matter your age or gender. Many ways to reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease or stroke are obvious -- exercise, eat a healthy and balanced diet, and don't smoke.

But moms have a secret weapon when it comes to reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease. That weapon is breastfeeding. Studies show that moms who breastfeed can lower their risk of developing heart disease and related issues.

In May 2009, Dr. Eleanor Bimla Schwarz and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Health Care evaluated 140,000 postmenopausal women with an average age of 63. The study showed that women who breastfed for more than 12 months during their life were nearly 10 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease. They were also less likely to develop risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

So how exactly does breastfeeding help prevent cardiovascular disease? Breastfeeding can help reset the body after pregnancy. And it burns an extra 200-500 calories per day, helping moms lose weight postpartum. Moms who maintain a healthy weight are at a lower risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. Breastfeeding moms also tend to have a higher ratio of "good" (HDL) to "bad" (LDL) cholesterol. These three factors can help a mom keep her heart healthy.

The benefits of breastfeeding don't apply just to moms. Studies show breastfed babies get heart-healthy benefits well into adulthood. A study presented at the American Heart Association's 2007 Scientific Sessions looked at the long-term effects of breastfeeding using data from two generations of participants in the Framingham Heart Study.

The results show adults who were breastfed as babies had a lower average body mass index by .9 kg/m2 and were 55 percent more likely to have a high HDL cholesterol level. Maintaining a healthy weight and good cholesterol levels can be the difference between developing or avoiding cardiovascular disease. Here's something the study found that's surprising: Some of the babies in the study had only been breastfed for a month. If anything proves the power of breastfeeding to combat heart disease, it's that the life-long benefits can be seen after just one month.

This evidence leaves little, if any, doubt that there's a strong connection between breastfeeding and heart health for mom and baby. But the benefits of breastfeeding go further. For moms, it can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, and osteoporosis. For babies, breastfeeding can reduce the risk of gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, childhood obesity, and SIDS.

Now I'm stepping into my role as a breastfeeding advocate. Beyond health improvements, there are vast fiscal and emotional breastfeeding benefits. It can save time and money, compared to formula, and fosters an irreplaceable bond between mom and baby which cannot be replicated by an artificial substitute.

Ladies, you're at just as much risk for cardiovascular disease as any man in your life, so take steps now to protect your heart. And if you or someone you know is pregnant and weighing the decision between breastfeeding and formula, save this article or share it right now. The research shows that breastfeeding works wonders for your heart, health, and baby. It also helps make us a healthier society with far-reaching benefits that last beyond the stage of breastfeeding.

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