Autism risk for babies of overweight pregnant women

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Women who are overweight or obese before they get pregnant are more likely to have a child who is autistic or with behavioral problems, a new review found.

Obese mothers had a 50 percent higher risk of having a child with any kind of neurodevelopmental disorders, while overweight women had a 17 percent higher risk.

Autism is 36 percent more likely in children born to obese mothers than those whose mothers were healthy weight, and their ADHD risk is 62 percent higher. 

The findings from the Virginia Commonwealth University highlight the direct implications the current obesity epidemic could have on the generations to come.

Researchers found a child's autism risk increased 36 percent and ADHD risk increased 62 percent if their mother was obese during pregnancy

Researchers found a child's autism risk increased 36 percent and ADHD risk increased 62 percent if their mother was obese during pregnancy

Researchers found a child’s autism risk increased 36 percent and ADHD risk increased 62 percent if their mother was obese during pregnancy

Autism, ADHD and other behavioral problems have increased over recent decades, as has obesity.

While genetics plays a part, the role other non-genetic influences on these neurodevelopmental disorders are not well understood.

More than 40 percent of women in the US are obese.

Neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome and autism are common and affect about one in 20 people.

ADHD alone is thought to affect between two and five percent of school-aged children and being born prematurely, having a low birthweight or if their mothers smoked, drank or took drugs increased the risk. 

Professor Dr Bernard Fuemmeler of the Virginia Commonwealth University explained: ‘Prenatal exposure to environmental toxins, stress and nutrition have all been linked to neurodevelopmental outcomes in children.

‘Of note, the increase in prevalence of neurodevelopmental problems has also been paralleled by an increase in prevalence of obesity in society.

‘This parallel, along with preclinical data linking high-fat diet and pre-pregnancy obesity to errant brain and behavioural development in offspring, have led to speculation that there may be a link between these two recent trends.

‘Correspondingly, there has been growing attention to maternal weight status, either pre-pregnancy weight or excess gestational weight gain, on children’s neurodevelopmental outcomes.’

The team found there was a 58 percent increased risk of developmental delay and a 42 percent increased risk of emotional or behavioral problems among children of obese women as opposed to children of healthy-weight women.

Being obese during pregnancy also increases the risk of gestational diabetes that has been linked to lower cognitive test scores and behavioral problems and premature births.

One baby in every 13 will be born prematurely and they are at greater risk of autism and have generally lower cognitive abilities.

So Prof Fuemmeler and colleagues from Duke University Medical Center reviewed all the studies looked at a mother’s pregnancy weight and neurodevelopment problems in their child.

From 1,483 articles, 41 articles met the inclusion criteria for the systematic review and 32 of the articles were included in the meta-analysis.

Senior author Prof Fuemmeler said: ‘Results show that children born to mothers who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk of neurodevelopmental problems, including ADHD, ASD, greater emotional/behavioural problems and cognitive delay.

‘Relative to children born to mothers who were normal weight during their pregnancy, the risk for any adverse neurodevelopmental outcome was 17 percent higher among children to mothers who were overweight prior to their pregnancy

And 51 percent higher among children born to mothers who were obese prior to their pregnancy.

‘Higher risk for specific problems for example ADHD was also observed among

children of overweight and obese mothers.

‘Like avoiding smoking during pregnancy, this review of over 40 articles suggests that maintaining a healthy weight during pregnancy may also be important to a child’s brain development.

‘At a population level, arresting the obesity epidemic among women in the childbearing age not only has the potential to improve delivery outcomes

but also, if these findings continue to bear out, has the potential to have downstream effects on the prevalence of neurodevelopmental problems in children.’

The study was published in the journal Obesity Reviews.

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