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Study Finds Adults With Autism More Prone To Chronic Disease


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Though less likely to smoke or drink, a new study finds that adults with autism are at higher risk for a slew of health problems ranging from diabetes and obesity to heart failure.

In a review of insurance records for more than 23,000 adults, researchers found that medical and psychiatric issues are much more prevalent in those with autism as compared to individuals without the developmental disorder.

“Nearly all medical conditions were significantly more common in adults with ASD than controls, including diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, epilepsy, sleep disorders, dyslipidemia, hypertension and obesity,” researchers said in a summary of their findings which are being presented this week at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Atlanta.

“Rarer conditions, such as eating disorders, mechanical falls, vision and hearing impairments, osteoporosis and chronic heart failure were also significantly more common among adults with ASD than controls,” they said.

For the study, researchers at Kaiser Permanente Northern California looked at medical records for 23,188 individuals ages 18 and older enrolled in the insurer’s health plans between 2008 and 2012 to assess the prevalence of psychiatric, behavioral and medical conditions. Of the individuals whose records were studied, 2,108 were diagnosed with autism.

The findings suggest that depression and anxiety are more than twice as common for those on the spectrum while bipolar disorder is eight times as likely and there is a 12-fold increase in the risk of epilepsy for this group.

Nearly a third of those with autism in the study also had obesity or hypertension, conditions that affected less than 20 percent of those without the developmental disorder. At the same time, however, the findings indicate that cancer rates were similar for those with and without autism.

While it’s long been known that children with autism face more medical and psychiatric diagnoses than their peers, this is the first large study to look at how common these issues are in adults.

“Children with autism become adults with autism,” said Lisa Croen who led the study and is director of the Autism Research Program at Kaiser Permanente Northern California. “Doctors caring for adults need to be aware that adults have autism and an adult with autism could be walking through their door.”

Croen said that physicians need better training on how to treat individuals on the spectrum throughout the life span and she said improvements are needed in the hand off from the pediatric to adult medical care systems.

Researchers said that one reason behind the high prevalence of health problems among adults with autism could be that the social and communication difficulties as well as the sensory sensitivities common among this population may lead to diminished preventive care.

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Comments (6 Responses)

  1. Autismmom says:

    Not surprising when you consider that underlying many cases of autism is a mitochondrial dysfunction.UC Davis scientists recently confirmed this to be true. Mitochondrial dysfunction is at the core of many common diseases such as diabetes, Parkinsons, MS, ALS, Alzheimers, heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer. Mitchondria are the powerhouses of the cell so if the mistochondria fail to produce sufficient energy, the cell will not function properly and organ systems will says over 50 mitochondrial experts who wrote to President to Obama about this. You can look it up. “Letter to President Obama from Mitochondrial Experts”

  2. KA101 says:

    Yep, autistic kids become autistic adults. Who knew? (The entire adult autistic population. Hi there! Glad to see you’re catching on.)

    It’s interesting that this focused on insured adults. I suspect you’d find similar, if not worse, results with uninsured adults–and given the whole difficulty-getting-work (and therefore affording medical insurance, Obamacare or no) thing, I imagine most autistic adults have untreated health issues.

  3. fairlady68 says:

    Yes this is so very true. I agree with KA101. It’s gratifying to see work finally being done on autistic adults. Especially by Kaiser, since that is my health plan. At age 56, I have many of the listed disorders: gastrointestinal disorders, dyslipidemia, hypertension and obesity. Autismmom’s comments about mitochondria are fascinating and I plan to follow them up. As if I could really do anything to change my mitochondria at this point…Anyhow, I think the general stress of the autistic life also plays a big role in the conditions for which I have listed myself as a sufferer.

  4. Janet says:

    I wonder about the correlation between “chronic diseases” and typically prescribed medications

  5. Rose says:

    Those diseases may be prevented with diet. Speaking from experience, my 11 year old son is a very fussy eater and still does not like many vegetables. I rarely give him sweets and he does manange to have a good diet with my supervision, but if I were not around and he was living on his own, I’m afraid that would all change. Hopefully someday he’ll understand the value of eating right.

  6. TheLaughingShadow says:

    Caution is needed here when looking at the underlying mechanisms. We must be careful of perceiving some aspects of this study as biological determinism versus a symptom and consequence of being maladaptive to the current dominant social paradigm. As someone who is spectrum, but has also suffered from complex PTS, it is important to figure out what is connected to nature in the form of inherent neurological difference and what is a result of (a failure) to nurture. ASD kids are demeaned, labeled, told even through genuinely caring folks that we have disabilities, and we do, there are some very severe genetic variatons and underlying neuropathy in many, but that is a portion of the spectrum, those of us labeled as “high” or “moderately” functional, often have our nature hijacked by ill nurture, because these things exist together, not like my undergrad days when so many folks still beat the drum for one or another, or my school days where folks still held firm in a belief in Tabula Rasa. But to be able to de-obfuscate the results, we need to have a conversation with the dominant paradigm, we need to put in perspective certain behaviors that have no threat connected to them inherently, but for which children with ASD are bullied, singled out, demeaned, and devalued every single day simple for our inability to seamlessly integrate with the dominant paradigm.

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