Friday, January 08, 2010

Is breast really best? Professor defies official advice and says formula milk as just as good

Breast milk is no better for a baby than formula, an expert claimed last night as he reignited the 'breast is best' debate. Professor Sven Carlsen said breast-fed babies were slightly healthier, but it was not the milk that made the difference. Instead, babies who are breast-fed have benefited from better conditions in the womb before birth. The professor, an expert in the hormonal changes of pregnancy, claimed: 'Baby formula is as good as breast milk.'

The bold statement will enrage the 'breast is best' lobby, who say a mother's milk wards off a host of ills. It will also confuse mothers who are under pressure from the Department of Health to feed their babies on breast milk alone for the first six months of life. NHS leaflets tell mothers that breast-feeding exclusively for the first six months will help protect their baby against obesity, eczema and ear, chest and tummy bugs. Avoiding formula, they are told, will cut the odds of a child being a fussy eater in later life, as well as cut the woman's odds of some cancers and help with weight loss.

But Professor Carlsen, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, spoke out after carrying out a review of more than 50 studies into the relationship between health and breast-feeding. Most concluded that the longer a child is nursed, the healthier it will be. The professor said this may be the case, but it was because of a healthier pregnancy, not the breast milk. His research shows that high levels of the male sex hormone testosterone in the womb affect a woman's ability to produce milk and to breast-feed.

With testosterone levels affected by the health of the placenta, which ferries oxygen and nutrients to the baby, the professor believes high amounts indicate poorer conditions in the womb overall. This means that any differences in the health of a baby bottle-fed because its mother finds breastfeeding difficult are set before birth, rather than afterwards.

But Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health spokesman Charlotte Wright said the claims were 'irresponsible and overblown'. She said: 'Women should remember that we were not designed to be bottle-fed - formula is an artificial alternative.'

Clare Byam-Cook, a former midwife who has taught celebrities such as Kate Winslet and Natasha Kaplinsky how to feed their babies, said breast-feeding was not suitable for all. She said: 'How a mother looks after herself and her growing baby in pregnancy is the most important thing that she can do. 'Once the baby is out, of course I would advocate breastfeeding. But if the mother can't do it she shouldn't pursue it too much and she certainly shouldn't feel guilty.'


The anti-Alzheimer's milkshake: Once-a-day drink that boosts memory

The gain seems to be slight in absolute terms and may not survive replication. That 24% given a dummy drink also showed improvement is cautionary. That's slightly below the normal placebo effect. One wonders about how double-blind the study was. Though it could be that Alzheimers patients are less likely to be influenced by placebo treatments

A memory-boosting milkshake for Alzheimer patients could be available within two years. Tests show that taken once a day with breakfast, the strawberry shake significantly improves short-term memory in those in the early stages of the devastating disease. The changes were apparent after only 12 weeks, providing ‘compelling evidence’ of the drink’s potential, the journal of the American Alzheimer’s association reports.

Further, large-scale trials of Souvenaid, which contains a cocktail of brain nutrients found naturally in breast milk, are already under way. If they are successful, it could be marketed by Shape and Actimel manufacturer Danone. It is likely to be displayed behind-the-counter in pharmacies and sold after a brief consultation, in a similar way to some cough mixtures.

Researcher Professor Richard Wurtman said: ‘This is something that has no toxicity, that gives you better function than you started with. If it works in the follow-up studies, it is very exciting.’

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia blight the lives of 400,000 Britons and their families – and the number of cases is expected to double within a generation. There is no cure and existing drugs, which raise levels of key brain chemicals, do not work for everyone and their effects wear off over time.

Rather than targeting brain chemicals, the drink focuses on the connections that carry vital messages between brain cells. Damage to these connections, or synapses, is blamed for many of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, including memory loss. Professor Wurtman, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, pinpointed the compounds which work together to make new connections. The three key ingredients – omega-3 fatty acids, uridine and choline – are all found in breast milk. Other ingredients include B vitamins and health-boosting antioxidants.

The milky ‘cocktail’ was tested in elderly men and women in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Half were asked to take the drink with breakfast for three months and half were given a substitute drink which looked and tasted the same but lacked the key ingredients. They were then given a battery of memory tests, including one in which they were questioned on details of a story around half an hour after being told it. This type of short-term memory loss is typical of Alzheimer’s.

Those taking Souvenaid were almost twice as likely to score better at the end than at the beginning of the three-month trial, the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia reports. Overall, 40 per cent of those who had taken Souvenaid showed improvement, compared with 24 per cent given the dummy drink.

The drink did not produce improvements in scores for tests of orientation and spatial awareness – but this may be because these traits do not tend to fade until later in the illness.

Flemming Morgan, of Danone, which funded the research, said: ‘Our goal is to make a proven and positive difference in the lives of millions of people with Alzheimer’s and their carers.’

In Britain, Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said: ‘It’s very early days, but this study does suggest that this multinutrient drink is worthy of further investigation.’


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