A new study published in the Pediatrics journal has associated autism and other developmental delays with maternal obesity. Statistics show that as maternal obesity rates increase, the risk for autism rises as well.
One in 88 children has an autism-related disorder, according to the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention. "The prevalence of obesity and diabetes among U.S. women of childbearing age is 34 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively," wrote the study's authors.
"Our findings raise concerns that these maternal conditions may be associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children and therefore could have serious public health implications," the study adds.
Researchers have been attempting to determine what causes autism, a socio-psychological disorder, for years. The news that maternal obesity could be a factor is startling to many, yet the new study's authors are quick to point out that while there is a strong correlation between obesity and autism, it should not be seen as a definitive factor.
"The goal of our research program is to try to find the modifiable risk factors," Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of public health sciences at the University of California at Davis told Good Morning America. "You can't control your genetics…but assuming our study is replicated, you would really want to figure out whether lowering weight and controlling diabetes during pregnancy…could change the risk of a child developing autism."
Paula Krakowiak, one of the lead researchers of the study, explained why obesity could be influencing the outcome of having a child with autism. Inflammatory proteins produced by the fat cells in an obese mother "are involved in the normal development of the brain," she tells MSN.
"When the level of those immunological markers is higher or lower than the normal range, it might affect how the brain develops in an adverse way. And at least one type has been shown to be able to cross over the placenta to the fetus," Krakowiak says.
"When they [fetuses] are growing at a faster rate [due to diabetes], they require more oxygen, and if the mom doesn't provide enough oxygen, then that could also cause some problems with brain development."
Yet it is important that people not take this new study as the definitive cause of autism. "This study doesn't tell you anything about the origin of autism," states Dr. Susan Hyman, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center.
"We would not advocate treating the hypothetical causes of autism, but we would recommend women of childbearing years to eat healthy and exercise and take care of themselves, not only for the fetus but so they can see their children grow up," she adds.
Krakowiak agrees with that recommendation. "It doesn't hurt anybody to lose weight, and it comes with other benefits to the mom. So losing weight will not only help you, but it also might potentially help your child to be healthier."