Study Links Maternal Obesity to Autism

A study published by researchers at the University of California Davis has found that women who are obese and have diabetes during pregnancy are 67 percent more likely to have children with developmental delays, which may include an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In a release, researchers said the findings are a serious public health call to action:

“Over a third of U.S. women in their childbearing years are obese, and nearly one-tenth have gestational or type 2 diabetes during pregnancy. Our finding that these maternal conditions may be linked with neurodevelopmental problems in children raises concerns and therefore may have serious public health implications,” said Paula Krakowiak, a PhD Candidate in Epidemiology affiliated with the [UC Davis] MIND Institute. “And while the study does not conclude that diabetes and obesity cause ASD and developmental delays, it suggests that fetal exposure to elevated glucose and maternal inflammation levels adversely affect fetal development.”

As the study makes its way through the media this week, analysts are urging parents to interpret the data in context, and without overreaction.  Richard Rende, who writes Parents.com’s Red Hot Parenting blog, writes that the study highlights ways in which maternal obesity impacts the development of a fetus’ brain–but that the focus should be on prevention, rather than panic.

Rather than focusing on metabolic conditions as “causes” of disorders, it’s probably better advised to consider them as modifiable influences on development. Maternal obesity is important in this sense because it is one of many factors associated with diabetes – though keep in mind that gestational diabetes can of course occur without obesity. Diabetes – whether in place prior to pregnancy or occurring during pregnancy – is important because it might have biological influences on brain development. So this study just reinforces the bigger message that I hope everyone is aware of – that pregnant women should get vigilant care for potential or existing metabolic conditions during pregnancy, especially diabetes. It’s critical for the well-being of both mom and baby.

Image: Bathroom scale, via Shutterstock.

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