Breast milk could play a vital role in preventing heart disease in prematurely born infants, Irish researchers have found.
One of the long-term health complications for premature babies is unique heart characteristics later in life.
These can include smaller heart chambers, relatively higher blood pressure, and a disproportionate increase in muscle mass in the heart.
The paper was led by researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Rotunda Hospital.
The review article, published in 'Pediatric Research', was written in collaboration with researchers from Harvard Medical School, Oxford University and Toronto University.
One study looked at 30 preterm-born adults who received exclusive human milk and 16 preterm-born adults who received an exclusive formula-based diet during their hospital stay.
They then underwent detailed cardiovascular assessment between 23 and 28 years of age. As expected, all of the hearts of those born prematurely had smaller chambers.
However, the study showed that the smaller heart chambers were less profound for the exclusively human milk-fed group in comparison to those who were exclusively formula fed.
The researchers outlined how breast milk could help prevent heart disease by better regulating hormones and growth factors, strengthening the infant's immune system, reducing inflammation and by possibly improving the metabolism of the child.
Identifying the key components within breast milk that result in improved heart health could pave the way for a more targeted approach to improve long-term cardiovascular well-being for those born prematurely.
"The current evidence comes from observational studies and highlights the strong link between early breast milk administrations and improvement in long-term heart health, but it lacks concrete mechanistic explanations," said Professor Afif EL-Khuffash, honorary clinical professor of paediatrics at RCSI and consultant neonatologist at Dublin's Rotunda Hospital.
"More studies on the composition of breast milk could make clear exactly what causes these health benefits, which could in turn lead to better treatment options."
The collaborative research group is continuing to study the effects of human milk exposure on heart function in very premature infants by using novel scans to measure heart function.
They hope to demonstrate that early human milk exposure in premature infants can lead to significant improvements in heart function over the first two years of age.