Kids of Obese Women Have Higher Autism Rates, Israeli Study Finds

Rates of movement disorders, ADD and degenerative disorders were slightly higher than among children born to nonobese mothers, says study by Ben-Gurion University and Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva

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File photo: Children enjoy ice-creams in downtown Rome, October 27, 2003.
Children born to obese mothers higher rates of movement disorders, ADD and degenerative disordersCredit: AP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Children born of obese women exhibit higher rates of autism syndrome and other neuropsychiatric issues, according to a vast study conducted by two Israeli institutions.

The results of studying 3,290 children born to obese mothers in Israel, versus 239,052 children born to nonobese mothers, were published Monday in the Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics.

Obesity is known to be a risk factor for both mother and child. Obese mothers – who make up, very roughly, a third of Western women these days – experience higher levels of diabetes themselves and children born with problems, birth defects (including of the nervous system) or are simply stillborn. Children of obese women exhibit higher rates of cardiovascular problems, eating disorders, and even cancer.

A separate study published in ScienceDaily last July by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center, covering 2 million birth records and 3,000 cancer registries, found that children born to obese mothers were 57 percent more likely to develop cancer, independent of other factors.

Now the researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Soroka University Medical Center, both in Be’er Sheva, have weighed in following a long-term pediatric study, encompassing 242,342 deliveries between 1991 and 2014 at Soroka, of which 3,290 (1.36 percent) were defined as being children of obese mothers.

The children of the obese group (body mass index of 30 and above) were born heavier, even abnormally large, while the rates of low birth weight were higher in the nonobese group. But chiefly: “Offspring of obese mothers had higher rates of autism spectrum disorders and psychiatric disorders,” writes the team – Zipora Feiga Neuhaus, Gil Gutvirtz, Gali Pariente, Tamar Wainstock, Daniella Landau and Eyal Sheiner.

The study was conducted entirely at Soroka, which is the only hospital catering to the Negev desert region. It is therefore uniquely in the position to track the region’s children from the day of birth onward: they have nowhere else to go for medical treatment, Wainstock explains to Haaretz.

The study tracked about half the children for up to 10 years and about half to age 18, she says.

The bottom line is that hospitalization rates for neuropsychiatric conditions totaled 3.95 percent among children born to obese mothers in the sample, compared with 3.10 percent for children born to nonobese mothers.

The proportion of “obese women” in the sample (1.36 percent) seems extremely low. Obesity rates in Israel are far higher than that: very roughly 13%.

True, says Wainstock: the study underestimates the real obesity rate. In fact, the “nonobese” group includes some obese women. If the obese women categorized as “nonobese” were moved into the “obese women” category, the correlation would be even greater, Wainstock elaborates.

“We found that compared to children born to nonobese mothers, this group had a higher rate of neuropsychiatric-related hospitalizations, with specific illnesses being more prevalent, including Autism Spectrum Disorders and other psychiatric issues,” says Sheiner, director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Soroka and vice dean for student affairs at BGU’s Faculty of Health Sciences.

For instance, 2.03 percent of the children born to obese mothers suffered from movement disorders, compared with 1.84 percent of the children born to nonobese mothers; 0.09 percent of the children born to obese mothers suffered autism syndrome, compared with 0.01 percent of the children born to nonobese mothers.

The differences for eating and sleep disorders, and cerebral palsy, were smaller but still existed. The rates of children with attention-deficit disorder and degenerative disorders were twice as high when the mothers were obese during pregnancy (0.12 percent compared with 0.06 percent, and 0.12 percent compared with 0.07 percent, respectively).

“It is therefore of great importance to consult, educate and take other measures of intervention to reduce prepregnancy obesity,” Sheiner states.

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