A National Weight: Obesity and Autism

Where it was once deemed a practical mystery, the cause and origin of autism is being newly illuminated as the science and research surrounding the issue has advanced exponentially over recent years.  With each step forward, the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) widens and claims an even larger amount of children than in years passed.  Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised their standing statistic that 1 in every 110 8-year-olds within the United States landed somewhere on the autism spectrum, boosting the ratio to 1 in every 88.

Yet as this significant jump has the potential to raise an alarm, it should also be noted that improvements in science and research methods are largely responsible for this increase.  As awareness of this disorder grows, so too do the diagnoses for particular ASD traits.  Every week, it seems another report comes out illustrating a part of the disorder otherwise previously unknown.  And it that regard, one study in particular sheds a light on two predominantly relevant issues within the United States. 

An April issue of the scientific journal Pediatrics, presents a new look into the possible causes of autism and reveals a link between the disorder and the mother’s weight during pregnancy.  Now while it need be mention that a link (a relation) does not suggest a direct cause, the information is certainly worth noting—especially as obesity consistently proves a growing concern for many American families.  Further research is necessary.

In an ongoing study partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers led by Paula Krakowiak of the University of California, in Davis, looked at a sample of about 1,000 children in California, ages 2 to 5.  Of the children studied, 517 had placed somewhere on the autism spectrum, 172 showed signs of developmental delays, and 315 had developed normally.  Where the mother’s data was present, it was discovered that women who were considered obese (at least 35 pounds overweight) were 1.67 times more likely than non-obese women to have children with autism.  Additionally, mothers who had gestational or Type 2 diabetes during pregnancy were 2.33 times more likely to have children with developmental delays.

As suggested by the results, obesity during pregnancy can heighten a child’s risk of developing autism—raising the possibility from a 1 in 88 chance to a 1 in 53 chance.  What exactly flips the switch for autism to occur in these particular situations still remains to be seen, but Krakowiak believes there may be a link between sugar level and brain development in the forming fetus.  Obesity is notably related to inflammation and high blood levels and this can be a detriment to a fetus in utero.

There is plenty of room for additional research and this topic is far from being set in stone.  But as both obesity and autism rates continue to grow in this country, this information cannot be ignored.  And with more than one-third of women of child-bearing age in the United States considered obese, a joint effort must be made in order to ensure the health of future generations.


Photo Credit: nih.gov/researchmatters/april2010/images/obesity_l.jpg

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