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Women who are obese during their pregnancies are significantly more likely to have a child with autism than healthy-weight mothers, according to the latest research into the sobering risks of obesity in pregnancy.
The new study of more than 1,000 children and their mothers provides evidence that obesity and diabetes during pregnancy may be risk factors for autism spectrum disorder and other neurodevelopmental problems in childhood — a finding the authors warn could have serious public-health implications given ever rising rates of obesity.
In the U.S., nearly 60 per cent of women of child-bearing age (20 to 39) are overweight; one-third are obese, the research team from the University of California Davis MIND (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute write in this week's issue of the journal Pediatrics.
In Canada, 29 per cent of women are overweight, and 23 per cent are obese, according to Statistics Canada. And obesity rates have been climbing fastest for women aged 25 to 34, nearly doubling in the past 25 years.
Meanwhile, the incidence of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, appears to be increasing as well. Approximately one in 110 children has the disorder.
Lead author Paula Krakowiak wondered whether there might be a connection.
While autism's cause is unknown, several studies suggest its "pathogenesis" — the chain of events leading to the disorder —most likely begins in the womb, she and her co-authors write.
For their study, the team analyzed data from children aged two to five born in California and enrolled in the CHARGE (Childhood Autism Risks from Genetics and the Environment) Study between January 2003 and June 2010.
There were 517 children who had autism; 172 with other developmental disorders and 315 children who were developing normally (the "controls.")
The researchers gathered information about the mothers from telephone interviews and medical records. They took the mother's age at delivery, education level and other factors into account.
Overall, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure were more prevalent among mothers of children with autism or other developmental disorders than the "control" moms.
"That in itself was a surprising finding," said Krakowiak, a PhD candidate in epidemiology with the MIND Institute.
Obese women were 67 per cent more likely to have a child with autism compared to healthy-weight mothers. They were also about twice as likely to have a child with another developmental disorder.
Expressed another way, 21.5 per cent of the mothers of children with autism — and 23.8 per cent of mothers of children with another developmental disorder— were obese, compared to 14.3 per cent of mothers of normally developing children.
Mothers with diabetes were found to have nearly twice the chance of having a child with developmental delays as healthy mothers.
— Postmedia News