Autism Linked to Maternal Obesity, Study Finds

Comstock/Thinkstock(DAVIS, Calif.) — Obesity during pregnancy can raise the risk of autism, a developmental disorder that affects one in 88 American children, according to a new study.

The study of more than 1,000 children in California found the risk of autism and other developmental delays was 60 percent higher among those born to mothers who were obese, hypertensive or diabetic.

“The prevalence of obesity and diabetes among U.S. women of childbearing age is 34 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively,” the study authors wrote in their report published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.  “Our findings raise concerns that these maternal conditions may be associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children and therefore could have serious public health implications.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates one in 88 children has an autism spectrum disorder, up from one in 110 in 2006.  Obesity is also on the rise, affecting more than one-third of U.S. adults.

“It’s hard to say if they’re linked,” said study author Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health sciences at the University of California at Davis.  “It might be there’s some environmental factor that contributes both to the obesity epidemic and to the rise in autism cases.  Or it could be the increase in obesity is, in fact, contributing to the increase in autism.  But it’s certainly not going to account for all of it.”

Hertz-Picciotto and colleagues have also linked autism to poor maternal nutrition, antidepressant use and closely spaced pregnancies.

“The goal of our research program is to try to find the modifiable risk factors,” Hertz-Picciotto said.  “You can’t control your genetics. … But assuming our study is replicated, you would really want to figure out whether lowering weight and controlling diabetes during pregnancy through physical exercise and diet or more medical means could change the risk of a child developing autism.”

How obesity and diabetes during pregnancy might predispose the developing fetus to autism is unclear, but theories include overexposure to glucose, insulin and inflammation.

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