What Babies Eat May Affect Leukemia Risk

Breastfeeding may protect against childhood leukemia

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Childhood cancer is rare, but it is still a leading health threat to children and adolescents — surpassed only by accidents. However, babies who are breastfed may be at a lower risk for developing one type of blood cancer in childhood.

A new study found that babies who drank breast milk for six months or longer were less likely to develop leukemia — compared with babies who were never breastfed or who were breastfed for a shorter time.

“This … indicates that promoting breastfeeding for six months or more may help lower childhood leukemia incidence, in addition to its other health benefits for children and mothers,” wrote study authors Efrat L. Amitay, PhD, and Lital Keinan-Boker, MD, PhD, of the School of Public Health at the University of Haifa, Israel. “Breastfeeding is a highly accessible, low-cost public health measure.”

Leukemia is a cancer of the bone marrow and blood. Leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for almost one-third of cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, breastfeeding may boost a child’s immune system. During nursing, the mother passes antibodies to the child. These antibodies may help the child resist diseases, such as leukemia.

This study analyzed 18 past studies concerning breastfeeding and childhood leukemia. Drs. Amitay and Keinan-Boker looked at 10,292 leukemia patients and 17,517 patients who did not have leukemia.

These researchers found that breastfeeding for six months or longer was linked to a 19 percent lower risk of leukemia. These results were compared with no breastfeeding or breastfeeding for a shorter period of time.

In a separate analysis of 15 studies, Drs. Amitay and Keinan-Boker found an 11 percent lower risk of childhood leukemia in children who were breastfed compared with those who were never breastfed.

Most types of leukemia stem from mutations in the genes of growing blood cells. Signs of leukemia may include infection, anemia (not enough healthy red blood cells), abnormal bleeding and swollen lymph nodes.

The exact cause of leukemia is unknown, but some types of childhood leukemia may be linked to genetic or environmental factors, according to the American Cancer Society. According to Drs. Amitay and Keinan-Boker and team, several biological mechanisms from breast milk may be at work in providing this protective benefit against cancer.

“The many potential preventive health benefits of breastfeeding should be communicated openly to the general public, not only to mothers, so breastfeeding can be more socially accepted and facilitated,” Drs. Amitay and Keinan-Boker wrote.

This study was published June 1 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Drs. Amity and Keinan-Boker disclosed no funding sources or conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
June 1, 2015
Last Updated:
June 10, 2015