Increased Risk of Child Autism Linked to Maternal Obesity, Diabetes


A US study has suggested that mothers who are obese during their pregnancy have roughly twice the chance of having a child with autism compared to mothers who weigh less.

Lisa Rapaport writes for Scientific American that when a woman is obese and has diabetes, the risk of her child having autism is quadrupled, at the minimum, according to the report published online in the journal Pediatrics.

“In terms of absolute risk, compared to common pediatric diseases such as obesity and asthma, the rate of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the U.S. population is relatively low, however, the personal, family and societal impact of ASD is enormous,” said senior study author Dr. Xiaobin Wang, a public health and pediatrics researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The CDC reports that one out of 68 children has ASD, or approximately 1.5% of US children. For children whose mothers are obese or have diabetes the risk rises to 3%, and for women who are both, it is 5% to 6%.

The researchers analyzed information from 2,734 mothers and their children who were followed at Boston Medical Center between the years of 1998 and 2014. Sixty-four percent had no other development disorders, but 102 young people received a diagnosis of ASD.

When compared to children who were developing in a typical manner, children with ASD were more often males, were born preterm, and had a low birth weight. Mothers of children with ASD were more often older, obese, and had a diagnosis of diabetes before or during their pregnancies.

Although a definite reason for these connections has not been established, it may be the increase in inflammation, hormones, and nutrients that often occurs for those with diabetes and obesity that leads to greater ASD risk, stated Elinor Sullivan, a biology and neuroscience researcher at the University of Portland, who was not a part of the study. These issues can affect how the brain develops.

Study author M. Daniele Fallin, chair of the department of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, advised that the research points out the potential for autism starting in utero.

Agata Blaszczak Boxe of Fox News explains that during the six year periodic reviews, 102 of all the children in the study were given diagnoses of autism and 137 of all the children were diagnosed with intellectual disabilities.

Another reason for the link between mother’s obesity and diabetes affecting a child’s risk of ASD, according to some research, is that the two mechanisms might interrupt the functioning of a mother’s immune system, which could then lead to autism development in their offspring.

The study also said that obesity and diabetes in moms could be linked to inflammation in the mother’s body, along with intrauterine and fetal brain inflammation. All have been found to be possible triggers for the development of autism in young ones.

There are also studies that theorize that obese women have less folate, which is a B-vitamin necessary for the development and health of human beings, reports PsychCentral’s Traci Pedersen.

Wang said more research would be needed before the combination of diabetes and obesity in pregnant women could be definitively linked to ASD, writes Alan Mozes of CBS News. A research associate atHarvard School of Public Health in Boston, Andrea Roberts, disagrees. Roberts thinks the study shows these factors do cause ASD. More importantly, she believes women should get to a healthy weight and do what is necessary to avoid diabetes in order to prevent a rise in autism risk in their sons and daughters.

Neither Wang nor Roberts blame the mothers. Roberts said the increase in obesity over the past 30 years was a societal issue. Wang added that his hope was the research findings will raise the level of awareness that maintaining a healthy weight, especially for future parents, is fundamental.

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