At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, there is nothing better a woman can do to lower her risk of breast cancer, and other reproductive cancers, than to have more children.
As I often report, women who have no children, or who have their first child after age 30, have a much higher risk for breast cancer than women who became pregnant before age 30. Along those same lines, women who have children before age 30 have a lower risk of ovarian cancer as well.
But the protection doesn’t stop when a woman reaches age 30.
In fact, according to a large study from the University of Southern California (one of the first groups to report on the health benefits of motherhood decades ago) women who had their final child after age 30 had a significantly lower risk of endometrial cancer compared to women who gave birth to their final child before age 25. The additional risk reduction of having more children later in life continued every five years. So–women whose final birth came after age 40 years ran a 44 percent lower risk of getting endometrial cancer.
Also, women often experience an improvement in endometriosis following pregnancy. Endometriosis can consist of bleeding of endometrial tissue abnormally located outside the uterus. Women often experience pain, irregular menses, and infertility.
And that’s not nearly the end of the protection motherhood confers. In fact, we now know motherhood also leads to brain growth…
We used to think brain and nervous tissue couldn’t grow during adulthood.
But now, with the help of new imaging technologies, we know the adult brain can and does adapt, change, and grow. Especially in women, after they give birth, according to a study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.
Plus, in this study, new mothers who rated their babies as “perfect” or “special” showed the greatest growth in areas of the brain associated with behavior and motivation. Researchers believe hormonal changes, including increases in oxytocin (the “love hormone”), help reshape the brain to get mothers more motivated since they must care for more than just themselves.
Of course, many new mothers experience post-partum depression, or the “baby blues.” In most cases, these feelings go away shortly after giving birth. (Perhaps once the brain adapts and changes under the new hormonal influences.)
However, in up to 10 percent of women, the symptoms of post-partum depression last longer. Research also links persistent depressive symptoms, tiredness, and feelings of loss (of freedom, physique, sex appeal) with hormonal changes.
Tragically, there is an alarming trend among doctors to dole out antidepressant drugs to women while they’re still pregnant. New research links maternal antidepressant use during pregnancy with congenital birth defects and behavioral problems in the unfortunate offspring. And giving these drugs immediately after giving birth may also be harmful.
When it comes to persistent post-partum depression, it’s important to get help from family, friends, and the community. Perhaps the phrase, “it takes a village” means as much or more for the mother as it does for the child. But it takes a family before a village.
When I was a child, my grandmother traveled from Europe to stay with us for nearly a year each time my mother became pregnant with another child. My Grandmère arrived during the third trimester and stayed for the first six to nine months after the birth of the new arrival.
And she was following a long tradition.
Anthropologists have long understood what they call the “post-reproductive role” of grandparents in society. They can contribute a great deal to the health and welfare and their grandchildren as well as their own children.
Finally, as I often report, breastfeeding (as a mother) and being breastfed (as an infant) also lowers a woman’s risk of breast cancer. In fact, according to a 2009 study, women who breast-fed were 25 percent less likely to develop aggressive, premenopausal breast cancer compared to women who had never breast-fed.
Breastfeeding also helps women return to a healthy weight after pregnancy. And it protects the newborn against developing infections and becoming obese later in life. It even helps women push past persistent post-partum depression.
Clearly, motherhood has many health benefits. And motherhood has inspired countless poets, pundits, and even politicians. In fact, one politician in particular seems to talk quite a bit these days about being a mother and grandmother herself — as if it’s her ultimate qualification for higher office. To tell the truth, it may be her only redeeming qualification.
P.S. Research shows mindfulness meditation can also help women recover from the stress of becoming a new mother. To learn more about how easy it is to begin practicing mindfulness meditation, even as a busy mother, parent or grandparent, check out my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness.
- “The Plasticity of Human Maternal Brain: Longitudinal Changes in Brain Anatomy During the Early Postpartum Period,” Behavioral Neuroscience 2010; 124(5)
- “Pregnancy history and risk of endometrial cancer,” Epidemiology. 2011 Sep; 22(5): 638–645