Julie Whittington, RD

Healthy tips from a Registered Dietitian

Maternal factors may have significant impact on a child’s risk of autism

New research, published in the journal, Pediatrics, indicates there may be a link between maternal metabolic problems – obesity, diabetes and hypertension – and the development of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders in their babies. 

For years, obesity has been on the rise.  And, likewise, type 2 diabetes and hypertension have been on the rise (especially since obesity can cause type 2 diabetes and hypertension).  According to published statistics, 34% of women of child-bearing age (20-39 years old) are obese (if you include those who are overweight, it jumps to 60%),  8.7% have diabetes and 16% of them have metabolic syndrome (a group of risk factors occurring together that increase the risk for coronary artery disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.)  

Additionally, according to the CDC, one in 110 children has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Other research has indicated one in 83 children have other Developmental Delays (DD).  These conditions are thought to be on the rise, as well.  Since most children with ASD struggle with various types of developmental disorders, research is being conducted to try to determine the route causes of these developmental disorders.  And, not surprisingly, investigators question if much of the cause of these disorders stems from what babies are exposed to in utero. 

In the study released in the most recent issue of Pediatrics, researchers found diabetes, obesity and hypertension more common among mothers whose children had ASD or DD.  The inflammation that can occur with these maternal conditions may very well affect fetuses negatively. 

Certainly, if a maternal metabolic factors such as these can increase the chances of having a child with ASD or DD, more research is needed to determine the exact mechanisms.  Genetics has, in other studies, been linked to ASD.  Questions still remain about the impact of medicines, drugs, nutrition and other maternal habits on a developing baby’s risk of ASD or DD.  And, we know some mothers maintain healthy weight prior to and during pregnancy, but still have children with ASD or DD.  The answers likely reside amid some mix of genetic and environmental factors.

Regardless, it appears maternal health, including weight, may play a role in the neurodevelopment of fetuses.  Certainly, maternal health has an impact on the health of a fetus overall.  If it indeed plays a role in conditions like autism, we can certainly better understand how to reduce the risk of having a child with ASD or DD or to reduce the severity of neurodevelopmental disorders.

It is always a good idea to achieve good health prior to becoming pregnant to limit pregnancy complications and improve the chances of having a healthy baby.  More research will help us to know the extent to which maternal health can affect the chances of a baby developing ASD or DD.  

To read the published study, go to: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/04/04/peds.2011-2583.full.pdf.  



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