updated 5/14/2004 9:57:00 AM ET 2004-05-14T13:57:00

Giving support to advocates of breast-feeding, new research bolsters the theory that rapid growth in infancy, encouraged by enriched infant formulas, might increase the risk of heart disease and stroke later in life.

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The study, described this week in The Lancet medical journal, found the cholesterol profile was 14 percent better in adolescents who had been fed breast milk as babies, compared with those fed formula.

The conclusion is the latest to come out of 20 years of research indicating that conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes could be influenced by a baby’s growth rate. All those conditions are linked to heart disease.

“These findings considerably strengthen the view that nutrition in the womb and in newborn children has a substantial influence on the risk of coronary heart disease later in life,” said Dr. Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation, which was not connected with the research.

He said the study provides “very strong evidence” that babies fed breast milk rather than formula will grow up to have significantly lower levels of bad cholesterol.

Cholesterol plays a central role in the clogging of arteries, which leads to heart attacks and strokes.

Inside the investigation
During the investigation, conducted by scientists at the Institute of Child Health in London, 216 pre-term babies born in the 1980s were fed either donated breast milk, pre-term formula or regular formula. Pre-term formula is more enriched with nutrients than regular formula.

The babies remained in the studies until they weighed about 4½ pounds or were sent home, which occurred on average four weeks after birth.

The scientists checked the cholesterol levels and other blood profiles involved in heart disease when the children became teenagers. Among the measures were the ratio of “bad” LDL cholesterol to “good” HDL cholesterol and the concentrations of c-reactive protein, which rises in the presence of inflammation involved with hardening of the arteries.

The adolescents who were given breast milk in infancy had a 14 percent lower ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol and lower concentrations of the inflammation protein than those who got either type of formula in infancy.

“A reduction of LDL cholesterol in the range observed in this study (14 percent) would be expected to lower heart disease risk by about the same amount,” said Dr. Edward Fisher, American Heart Association spokesman and director of the Lipid Treatment and Research Program at New York University School of Medicine.

There was no difference in the blood results between the children who were given either pre-term or regular formula.

“The findings ... suggest that infant nutrition permanently affects the (cholesterol) profile later in life, and specifically that breast milk feeding has a beneficial effect,” said lead investigator Dr. Atul Singhal of the Institute of Child Health.

Dangers of slow growth
The idea that fast infant growth may be a bad idea seems to contradict current public health recommendations, which strongly support the promotion of infant growth.

However, the scientists said that — at least for pre-term babies — the benefits of slow growth for heart disease and other related disorders would have to be weighed against the danger that slow growth can pose to brain development.

“Promotion of faster growth might prove advantageous overall for infants in developing countries where rapid early weight gain has short-term health benefits,” the scientists said.

“Although we do not advocate nutrition restriction in infancy on the basis of current evidence, further research is now of high priority,” they said.

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