Greater risk of long-term health conditions for people with autism

people with autism
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A new study has indicated that people with autism display a higher likelihood of developing long-term health conditions than others.

The investigation, conducted by researchers from the University of Cambridge, signifies that people with autism have a higher probability of developing severe health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, with unhealthy lifestyle habits suggested to be a contributing factor.

The results of the study are published in the journal Molecular Autism.

In the first study of its kind, exercise, diet, and sleeping patterns were examined as attributable to the low life expectancy of people with autism, with previous studies alluding that autistic people die between 16 to 35 years younger than the expected average, prompting the researchers to believe that poor lifestyle habits are the explanation for this.

The knock-on effect of poor lifestyle habits

To test their hypothesis, the team based at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge developed an anonymous, online survey that queried daily habits, lifestyle choices, personal medical history, and family medical history – compiling data from 1,183 autistic adults and 1,203 non-autistic adults between 16 to 90 years old.

The findings demonstrated that the minimal health requirements for exercise, diet, and sleep were significantly less likely to be achieved by autistic adults in comparison to non-autistic adults, with limited diets, atypical eating patterns, and sleep disturbance contributing to far more significant fluctuations in weight than non-autistic adults.

The repercussions of these poor lifestyle habits can be severe, with cardiovascular conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke all heightened in autistic males, indicating that changes to these detrimental lifestyle choices could greatly mitigate the chances of developing such conditions.

Elizabeth Weir, the lead author of the study from the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, said: “These findings help us to better understand the experiences of autistic adults and have wider implications for quality of life. We need to understand the reasons for a restricted diet, limited exercise, and lack of sleep to provide better support. This may include programmes for health education, and additional mental health support or supported living and working schemes.”

Dr Carrie Allison, Director of Research Strategy at the Autism Research Centre and a member of the research team, said: “The challenges we see among autistic children regarding lifestyle behaviours extend into adulthood. Given the implications for risk of chronic disease and length of life, it is critical that we work to identify effective strategies for supporting health choices by autistic people of all ages.”

The implications of these poor life lifestyle habits can influence far beyond physical health, with sleep and meal patterns affecting social interaction, which further exacerbates mental health problems of people with autism, potentially disrupting education and employment.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre and a member of the team, said: “The wider picture suggests that autistic adults experience vulnerability in a variety of contexts, and this is just one new area that we should consider. Seeing that autistic adults are having such a hard time comparatively with healthy lifestyle habits has clear healthcare and policy implications: we need to create new and better support systems tailored to the specific needs of autistic people.”


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