Obesity in Pregnancy Linked to Autism in Kids

Moms who struggle with diabetes, hypertension or obesity while pregnant are more likely to have children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or developmental delays, a new study has revealed.


The findings come on the heels of a well-publicized report by the national Centers for Disease Control, which revealed that autism and ASD diagnoses continue to rise, with one in 88 children in the United States now affected.


In this new study, published in a recent issue of Pediatrics, researchers from the MIND Institute at the University of California at Davis and the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine looked at California children, ages 2 to 5, enrolled in a population-based study from 2003 to 2010. Of the group, 500 had ASD, 200 had developmental delays and 300 were developing typically. The researchers reviewed medical records for the children’s mothers during pregnancy, asked the mothers about a history or diagnosis of diabetes or hypertension, and noted the women’s body-mass indexes (BMIs), a measure of weight related to height.


Women who were obese before pregnancy had a 60 percent higher chance of having a child with ASD, and twice the risk of having a child with a developmental delay. Those with high blood pressure or diabetes before or during pregnancy were also more likely to have children with ASD or delays, but the increase wasn’t statistically significant.


Diabetes during pregnancy has previously been associated with developmental problems in children, but not consistently linked with ASD.


Obesity is a significant risk factor for hypertension and diabetes, and all three conditions impact the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar (glucose). Exposing a developing fetus to too much glucose can trigger a condition called fetal hypoxia (increased metabolism leading to lack of oxygen), as well as iron deficiency – both of which can profoundly impact development of the brain.


The authors point out that nearly 60 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age are overweight, one-third are obese, and 16 percent are at risk of diabetes. “Our findings raise concerns that these maternal conditions may be associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children and therefore could have serious public health implications,” they note.


– Christina Elston 

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