Autism linked to obesity in mothers

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study on April 9 showing obese mothers have a greater risk of giving birth to a baby with autism.

While there is limited knowledge about autism, researchers have concluded that women who are obese face greater health concerns and may suffer a greater risk for their child to carry the developmental disorder.

First, it is important to understand what these terms mean. A person who is obese has too much body fat according to PubMed Health. The determining factor of obesity is related to a person’s Body Mass Index.

BMI is measured using a person’s height and weight to determine his or her body fat. Defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the four different BMI categories are: underweight (less than 18.5), normal weight (18.5-24.9), overweight (25-29.9 ) and obesity (30+).

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “autism covers a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by mental impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive and  stereotypical patterns of behavior.”

Autism typically becomes apparent within the child’s first three years of life.

So, what is the connection between mothers who are obese and children who have autism?

According to Associate Professor and Chair of Biology Melanie Lee-Brown, it may be physiological. Obesity affects a person’s body on many levels, and Brown pointed out that obese women also have a higher risk of giving birth to large babies.

“These factors together put a tremendous strain on the woman’s body, and could lead to problems with gas exchange and nutrient/waste exchange between the mother and the child,” said Brown. “In turn, these problems could lead to developmental anomalies by influencing gene structure (DNA) and gene expression (protein production).”

It has also been suggested that autism is a genetic disorder. However, parental age, premature birth and failure to take prenatal vitamins are also contributing factors.

Recently, the CDC came out with a study stating that one in 88 U.S. children have autism; this is up from one in 110 in a 2009 report. The other correlating statistic to this is that a third of U.S. women who are in the age range to reproduce are considered obese.

It is important to note that women who are obese are at a greater risk of having diabetes and/or high blood pressure, in addition to their risks of having an autistic child. According to the study done by the CDC, insulin resistance is a factor in how obese mothers could have children with autism.

“When insulin isn’t made or used properly by the body — as can be the case in some obese people — it alters how sugar, which serves as energy for the body, is produced and transported to tissues including the brain,” the study reported. “Such disruption may have a particularly potent effect on fetal brains, which are known to need a lot of sugar.”

The bigger significance of this new research is the alarming statistics of obesity in women in the U.S. and what that means. This research should be heard as an outcry to the nation. To a certain extent, women that plan to have children are responsible for the health of their child and, consequently, the health of themselves.

There is no quick fix or easy solution to obesity. While it can be perpetuated by genetics, it can be somewhat controlled by physical exercise and maintaining a balanced diet.

“Obviously, nutrition and exercise are important,” said Men’s Soccer Coach Jeff Bateson.

This is something that we’ve all grown up hearing, and yet the statistics show that the problem of obesity is becoming more serious each year.

It is likely that the solution, while requiring individual discipline and awareness, will also require a complete shift in the way our society views health, nutrition, exercise and convenience.

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