Autism Risk Linked To Motherhood Obesity, Diabetes: New Study

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics has shown that the risk of Autism in a child doubles when the mother is obese, and quadruples in cases where the mother has diabetes. The study, using what was termed the “Boston cohort” of mothers, included 2,734 children including 102 children with Autism. It should be pointed out that no firm conclusions were reached with regard to causation. That is to say, while there is a definite correlation between motherhood obesity and diabetes and the risk of autism, the study’s conclusions could not confirm that these conditions actually cause autism.

No previous study has ever investigated the link between obesity, diabetes, and childhood autism. This would account for the fact that these early findings do not speak directly to causation. The numbers by themselves, however, are sufficiently compelling to argue for a link between these conditions and a significantly increased risk of autism in children.

obesity and diabetes increase risk of autism
Obesity and diabetes have been linked to big increases in the risk of autism. [Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

Obesity and diabetes have been linked to big increases in the risk of autism.
[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images][/caption]

Dr Xiaobin Wang, lead author of the study and a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said that he was unsurprised by the findings. He was quoted in Forbes as saying that it has long been known that obesity and diabetes in expectant mothers has a negative effect on the overall metabolic health of babies.

“Now we have further evidence that maternal obesity and diabetes also impact the long term neural development of their children.”

These findings have worrying implications in the light of the USA’s current obesity epidemic. It is estimated that up to a third of women of childbearing age are obese, and that 10 percent of these women is also diabetic. Overall, roughly 1.5 percent of children born in America have disorders that are identified as being on the autism spectrum. This translates to an equivalent risk of 1.5 percent for a healthy pregnancy. With obesity as a factor, the risk of having a child with autism rises to three percent, and with both diabetes and obesity, can climb to as high as six percent.

diabetes and obesity increase risk of autism
About a third of women of childbearing age are obese. [Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images]

About a third of women of childbearing age are obese.
[Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images][/caption]

Andrea Roberts, a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health, was quick to try to put these results in context. In comments reported by I3WMAZ, Roberts ventured the opinion that the link probably was causal, although further research was needed. She said that it is generally held to be positive for women to change their weight and health status in positive ways prior to pregnancy, and that this new information was simply another addition to the list of reasons to be as healthy as possible around the times of conception and gestation. She was quick to point out, however, that it would be unwise to use this information in assigning blame of any kind to overweight or diabetic mothers.

“In terms of casting blame, I would say that when you see a massive increase of obesity over the past 30 years it’s hard to say it’s an individual’s fault or problem. This is a societal issue.”

obesity and diabetes increase risk of autism
Some commentators point to the easy availability of junk food as a problem. [Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images]

Some commentators point to the easy availability of junk food as a problem.
[Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images][/caption]

Roberts says that current conditions suggest a parallel between now and the world of the sixties, when the availability of cigarettes was much higher. Just as in the past cigarettes were heavily advertised and available for purchase almost everywhere, a similar situation has now arisen with relation to junk food and obesity. In the current environment, people in general, not just mothers, are bombarded with junk food advertising and can purchase poor quality, high calorie foods with great ease. It is this situation more than individual failings that she blames for the rise in obesity and the associated increase in the risk of autism.

Whatever the case, studies into the causal origins of autism are still in their infancy, but the general principle still holds true. It is highly advisable that people wishing to have children become as healthy as they possibly can in order to minimize the risk not just of autism spectrum disorders, but birth defects of all kinds.

[Photo by Fiona Goodal/Getty Images]