Autism and obesity are both on the rise and the two are directly linked according to a recent report in the respected journal, Pediatrics. A study of over 1,000 children between 2-5 years of age demonstrated that maternal obesity before pregnancy was associated with a 60% increase in the likelihood of giving birth to a child with autism according Vanderbilt and UC Davis researchers. Maternal diabetes and/or high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia included) before or during pregnancy increased the risk of autism even further. Senior author Dr. Hertz-Picciotto stated, “The brain is quintessentially susceptible to everything that’s happening in the mother’s body.” She speculated that insulin resistance (IR), common in obesity and type II diabetics, may be an important causative factor. IR affects how insulin is manufactured, transported and absorbed by tissues, particularly the brain. This effect may be uniquely potent on fetal brains, which utilize large amounts of sugar.
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Autism has steadily increased in our society and now affects 1 in 88 American children, whereas only 1 in 110 were affected in 2009. Many factors have been implicated in this rise, even including TV viewing! This report adds to recent research which suggests that the greatest risk period for development of autism is in the womb. Genetic factors no doubt play a role, along with vitamin deficiencies, pollutants, older parental age, prematurity and time span of less than 12 months between siblings; however, virtually of all of the causative factors seem to be related to the maternal environment during fetal development. Demonstration of a strong association of autism with maternal obesity and hypertension and type II diabetes –both strongly associated with obesity– is provocative and parallels the well known increase in obesity in the general population. The good news is that maternal obesity and its associated conditions (hypertension and diabetes) are modifiable risk factors. Losing weight before pregnancy may be just as important as controlling weight during pregnancy!