Touro experts say more research needed to confirm link of obesity to autism
"This is important but we shouldn't jump right to saying this is the cause," said Dr. Philip Malouf, a Touro University pediatrician and professor who has worked with autism experts and children with the disorder for years.
The study is among the first linking obesity and autism, though it doesn't prove one causes the other.
At the very least, findings can raise public health concerns due to the high level of obesity in this country, Malouf and report authors said.
Further, Linda Haymes, Touro assistant professor of special education, said the report showed obesity as a relatively small overall risk.
She said obstetricians and medical physicians should recommend that women planning to get pregnant slim down.
The research first appeared in the online version of Pediatrics. It looks at the impact of children's cognitive development from a variety of "metabolic conditions" in the mother. Those include high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as obesity.
Malouf said the report adds to the body of information about autism, and added clearly there's been a dramatic increase in the number of autistic kids.
"It's really impressive" due to the large number of mothers and children who were surveyed, Malouf said.
However, researchers already had the diagnosis going in, he said. "There's always a chance for bias which makes it not ideal," he added.
The most important aspect is that it leads credence to other studies stressing the importance of a healthy lifestyle, Malouf said.
Study women who were obese during pregnancy were about 67 percent more likely than normal-weight women to have autistic children. They also faced double the risk of having children with other developmental delays.
On average, women face a 1 in 88 chance of having a child with autism; the results suggest that obesity during pregnancy would increase that to a 1 in 53 chance, the authors said.
Since more than one-third of U.S. women of child-bearing age are obese, the results are potentially worrisome and add yet another incentive for maintaining a normal weight, said researcher Paula Krakowiak, a study co-author and scientist at the University of California, Davis.
Obesity in birth has been linked to stillbirths, preterm births and some birth defects.
The study was released at the same time of another report indicating that more than $1 billion has been spent over the past decade researching autism.
At one point, experts believed vaccinations may be a cause, while others looked at genetics, the age of the father, and how close a child lives to a freeway.
Research has taken on a greater sense of urgency by information that suggests autism disorders are far more common than previously understood, affecting 1 in 88 United States children.
The obesity/autism study involved about 1,000 California children, ages 2 to 5.
Nearly 700 had autism or other developmental delays, and 315 did not have those problems.
Mothers were asked about their health. Medical records were available for more than half the women and confirmed their conditions.
Obesity, generally about 35 pounds overweight, is linked with inflammation and sometimes elevated levels of blood sugar.
Excess blood sugar and inflammation-related substances in a mother's blood may reach the fetus and damage the developing brain, Krakowiak said.
The study lacks information on blood tests during pregnancy. There's also no information on women's diets and other habits during pregnancy that might have influenced fetal development.
Touro University started a masters degree with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorders in 2008 with assistance from a grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Its purpose is to recruit and train teachers to deal with the disorder, and to enhance special education instruction.
Reuters contributed to this report. Reach Sarah Rohrs at firstname.lastname@example.org or (707) 553-6832. Follow her on Twitter @SarahVTH
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