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Adult cancer risk in women who were breastfed as infants: large UK prospective study

Yang O, Cairns BJ, Green J, Reeves GK, Floud S, Bradbury KE, Beral V for the Million Women Study Collaborators.

Eur J Epidemiol 2019 34(9):863-870.

There are known short-term benefits in breastfed infants versus bottle-fed infants in terms of lower risks of infection and obesity in infancy and childhood, but the long-term effect on the risk of adult cancers is unclear. In a cohort of 1 in 4 UK women born in 1935-1950 we report the incidence of adult cancers in relation to having been breastfed in infancy. In median year 2001 (interquartile range 2000-2003) 548,741 women without prior cancer reported whether they had been breastfed. There was 81% agreement between women’s report of having been breastfed and information on breastfeeding recorded when they were 2 years old. Participants were followed by record-linkage to national cancer registration, hospital admission and death databases. Cox regression yielded adjusted relative risks (RRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CI) by having been breastfed or not for eight cancer sites with > 2000 incident cases and for related conditions, where appropriate. Of the eight cancers examined here one association was highly statistically significant: an increase in colorectal cancer incidence among women who had been breastfed versus not (RR 1.18, 95% CI 1.12-1.24, n = 8651). To investigate further the findings for colorectal cancer, we studied eight other gastro-intestinal conditions, and found increased risks in women who had been breastfed versus not for benign colorectal polyps (RR 1.09, 95% CI 1.05-1.13, n = 17,677) and for appendicitis (RR 1.19, 95% CI 1.07-1.31, n = 2108). The greater risks of adult colorectal cancer, colorectal polyps and appendicitis associated with having been breastfed in infancy suggest possible long-term effects of infant feeding practices on the gastrointestinal tract. Further studies are required to clarify this novel association.