Research News

Linking Birth Weight and Breast-Feeding with Adult Disease

Thomas McDade

Overall, Americans are not as healthy, spend twice as much on healthcare, and experience greater health disparities than the citizens of many other developed nations—and even some lesser developed ones, said IPR anthropologist Thomas McDade. When it comes to health, McDade noted, “It’s better to be poor in Europe, than rich in the United States.”

McDade’s research agenda examines issues associated with this “U.S. health disadvantage,” in particular how early environments shape adult health, a key research theme of the IPR center he now directs, Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health.

At an October 14 IPR colloquium, McDade presented a recent study, available as an IPR working paper, investigating links between breast-feeding, birth weight, and chronic inflammation in early adulthood.

“The case of breast-feeding and the case of birth weight are particularly illuminating,” McDade said, explaining that rates for many adult diseases “completely mirrored” rates of low birth weight and low breast-feeding uptake and duration.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, McDade and his co-authors, including IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam evaluated how levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a key biomarker of inflammation linked back to birth weight and breast-fed duration for nearly 7,000 24 to 32 year olds. An innovation of their study is the use of sibling comparison models, which control for many of the factors that may bias previous estimates of the impacts of birth weight and breast-feeding on adult health outcomes. 

McDade and his colleagues find that breast-feeding
could significantly reduce child illness and health costs.
Above, the international symbol for breast-feeding.

The researchers found dramatic racial, ethnic, and education disparities. More educated mothers were more likely to breast-feed, as were whites and Hispanics. They also showed both lower birth weights and shorter durations of breast-feeding predicted higher CRP levels in young adults, and thus higher disease risk.

Each pound of additional birth weight predicted a CRP concentration that was 5 percent lower. Three to 12 months of breast-feeding predicted CRP levels that were 20 to 30 percent lower than for those who were not breast-fed. In fact, breast-feeding had the same or greater effect as drug therapies in reducing young adult CRP, as measured in previous studies. McDade cited research showing that if 90 percent of U.S. babies were breast-fed exclusively for six months, it could significantly reduce childhood illnesses, potentially saving billions in healthcare expenditures.

“In terms of intervention and breaking that cycle, it really points toward the need to invest in interventions early in life,” McDade said. “That may ultimately address the relatively intractable social disparities we see in adult health in the U.S.”

Thomas McDade is professor of anthropology, an IPR faculty fellow, and director of IPR's Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health.

Photo credits:Mary Hanlon, Wikipedia