Maternal obesity and diabetes quadruple the baby’s autism risk, researchers have recently established, in a new study featured on Friday, January 29 in the journal Pediatrics.
The correlation was discovered by a team of experts led by Dr. Xiaobin Wang, acclaimed pediatrician and molecular epidemiologist, who’s also in charge with the Center on Early Life Origins of Disease, at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The scientists surveyed 2,734 mother-child pairs, selected based on the fact that the infants had been born between 1998 and 2014, at Boston Medical Center.
All the women included in the analysis answered a short questionnaire days after delivering their baby, with study authors being particularly interested in each participant’s body mass index, and metabolic health, identifying individuals who had suffered from diabetes or obesity.
In addition, follow-up check-ups were conducted for approximately 6 years following each birth, in order to determine which of the infants had been affected by autism spectrum disorder, general learning disabilities, and other developmental impairments.
Overall, by the end of the study, 4% of the children (102 of them) were ascertained as autistic, approximately 1 in 20 were diagnosed with a form of intellectual development disorder, around a third were found to have some other type of developmental delay, while the rest (64%) were believed to have no such health issue.
It was discovered that women who had been obese at the time of delivery (as shown by their body mass index which had been measured at 30 or upwards), were twice more likely to have babies suffering from autism.
The same association was also identified among expectant mothers who had been diagnosed with diabetes, and researchers also revealed a higher prevalence of autism among children whose mothers had developed gestational diabetes for the duration of their pregnancy.
In addition, among women who were both obese and diabetic when they gave birth, the probability of having an autistic baby appeared to increase fourfold.
Study authors also noticed that maternal obesity occurring in conjunction with diabetes led to a much greater likelihood that the infant would experience intellectual disabilities. Apparently, the most elevated susceptibility for such learning delays was identified among kids who had also been proven to have autism.
As researchers explain, their findings only point to an association between maternal obesity and diabetes on one hand, and an increased risk of autism among babies on the other hand, without exactly proving a cause and effect relationship between these conditions.
In contrast, Andrea Roberts, research associate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health firmly believes that in this case a causality emerging from the early stages of fetal development is indeed present, and should be acknowledged by the scientific community.
If such an interdependence did exist, it wouldn’t be that bewildering after all, given the fact that women suffering from diabetes and obesity have previously being found to also have a higher probability of giving birth to a baby that will also be affected by metabolic disorders and other health issues.
Guided by this train of thought, Roberts suggests that women might be able to curb the probability that their children will suffer from autism and other neural development problems, simply by adopting a healthier lifestyle.
Diabetes nowadays affects around a tenth of the women of child-bearing age, while obesity severely impacts over a third of the females in this age group.
Given that both diabetes and obesity are often seen as preventable conditions, associated with lack of physical activity and inadequate nutrition, it may be that more women would be able to avoid such health issues, by exercising more frequently and by renouncing sugary or fatty foods in favor of more fruits, veggies and whole grains.
This in turn might also reduce the incidence of autism, which has soared in the last 5 decades, the neurodevelopmental disorder currently impinging upon the lives of more than 1 in 68 of all the children in the United States.
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