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New Study Finds Proper Prenatal Nutrition May Reduce Risk of Autism in Children

Lowering risk of autism in pregnant women

Pregnant women are advised to take prenatal supplements such as folic acid, iron, iodine, and calcium to boost overall health, close nutritional gaps in their diet, and to prevent certain birth defects.  A new study by an international team of scientists of just more than 45,000 Israeli children revealed that proper prenatal nutrition is even more critical to minimize the chance of babies born with autism and related disorders, particularly for those women with a family history of ASD.  The researchers suggest that women who plan to become pregnant should include a prenatal regimen.  The study was published online on January 3, 2018 in JAMA Psychiatry.

Autism is the most common condition in a group of developmental disorders known as the autism spectrum disorders (ASD), affecting 1 in 68 children each year, with more on the rise in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical professionals continue to debate the causes and diagnoses of autism, searching for answers and best practices to counsel parents concerned about their child’s risk. 

The Israeli team, led by Stephen Levine, Associate Professor at the University of Haifa’s Department of Community Mental Health, studied survey data on women who became pregnant and gave birth in Israel between January 1, 2003 and December 31, 2007, and followed their progress through 2015. The study included the collection of prescription data to determine if the mothers-to-be were prescribed the vital nutrients prior to, or during, pregnancy.  Findings showed that those taking the prenatal supplements prior to pregnancy reduced their chances of giving birth to a baby with autism by 61 percent, compared with women who didn’t take supplements.  Boosting nutritional support with supplements during pregnancy also was linked to a 73 percent reduced risk of an autism diagnosis.  The overall risk of autism remained low, with only 1.3 percent of the children in the study receiving a diagnosis.

​According to Romper, the new study is part of a growing body of evidence that maternal nutrition could play a role in certain developmental disorders, as well. With a lack of consensus on the definitive causes of autism, the idea that prenatal nutrition could play such a huge factor is important. Dr. Jennifer Ashton, ABC News chief medical correspondent, who was not involved in the study, reported that the findings raised ‘“interesting questions”’ for researchers, given that “’these findings do reflect a positive association with maternal preconception and prenatal intake of folic acid/prenatal vitamins and a reduced risk of having a baby with autism,”’ she said.

HealthDay reports that Dr. Ruth Milanaik, Director of the Neonatal Neurodevelopmental Follow-Up Program at Cohen Children’s Medical Center, in New Hyde Park, N.Y., finds the results inconclusive. ‘’The study cannot prove a direct cause-and-effect link between supplements and autism due to its design, and suffers from some major limitations. For one, the study could not clearly determine which women actually took their supplements,”’ nor do the prescription records necessarily reveal whether or not the patients actually take the supplements, and does not take into account women who may purchase prenatal vitamins over the counter. “’I don’t have a problem with saying folic acid is good for pregnant women.”’ She says the supplement should be taken before pregnancy, as well. “’But this study does not show that [not taking supplements] is a cause of autism in any way, shape or form.”’

A fall 2017 Chicago Tribune article states that an earlier study of autism and vitamin intake in Swedish mothers was consistent with the Israeli study, however, the latter offered new evidence on the benefits of taking prenatal supplements well in advance of conception.  Women who did so for at least two years before pregnancy also saw a dramatically lower risk of their child developing autism, according to the JAMA report.    

While the study results hold promise for more women to deliver healthy babies, experts caution that other factors may contribute to lowering the risk of giving birth to an autistic child. Prospective parents should consult with their physicians and other medical experts on the best plan for their individual needs.

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