Pregnant women who are obese and diabetic are more likely to give birth to kids with autism, as suggested by a new study. Children born to women with both conditions nearly quadrupled their risk to receive an autism diagnosis by age six.

"In terms of absolute risk, compared to common pediatric diseases such as obesity and asthma, the rate of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the U.S. population is relatively low, however, the personal, family and societal impact of ASD is enormous," said Dr. Xiaobin Wang, a public health and pediatrics researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

In the study published in the journal Pediatrics, the researchers analyzed more than 2,700 pairs of mothers and children at the Boston Medical Center from 1998 to 2014.

During the follow-up period, 102 kids were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, while 137 were found to have intellectual disabilities (ID). No other types of developmental disorders (DD) showed similar patterns of increased risk linked with both pre-pregnancy obesity and diabetes.

While the association between autism and maternal health is still not clear, the researchers said it is possible that the inflammation, hormones and nutrients linked to diabetes and obesity may cause the increased risk. Previous studies have shown that maternal obesity led to increased inflammation in the brain of the fetus and lowered levels of folate, a nutrient crucial for brain development.

According to Elinor Sullivan, biology and neuroscience researcher at the University of Portland, "the levels of inflammatory factors and nutrients that the offspring would be exposed to would be further elevated" if the woman is both obese and diabetic before conceiving a child.

"In order to prevent autism, we may need to consider not only pregnancy, but also pre-pregnancy health," M. Daniele Fallin, director of the Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at the Bloomberg School, said.

Photo: Gabi Menashe | Flickr

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