Unhealthy lifestyle habits linked to high risk of cardiovascular disease in autistic people

Autistic people have far greater risks of long-term physical health conditions than others.

Studies of autistic children suggest that restricted eating, reduced physical activity, and sleep disorders are common. However, there are no studies to describe the diet, exercise, and sleep patterns of autistic adults or consider relationships between lifestyle behaviors and the widely reported increased risks of obesity and chronic conditions.

In Cambridge, scientists at the Autism Research Centre developed an anonymous, online survey about lifestyle choices and daily habits, personal medical history, and family medical history. The final study included 1,183 autistic adults and 1,203 non-autistic adults aged 16-90 years.

It was found that autistic adults are less likely to meet very minimal health recommendations for diet, exercise, and sleep. Compared to non-autistic adults, autistic adults are far more likely to have atypical eating patterns (including limited diet) and sleep disturbance. They were more likely to be underweight or obese than non-autistic individuals.

What’s more, their poor lifestyle habits are found to be associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular conditions. They were more likely to have high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke among autistic males.

The study signifies that promoting healthy choices regarding diet, exercise, and sleep may help to reduce the excess risks of health conditions in autistic adults.

The study also indicates that there might be other biological or environmental factors that leave autistic individuals at greater risk of health conditions. It is quite challenging to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This difficulty may also have knock-on effects beyond physical health, including limiting opportunities for social interaction, and could contribute to worsening mental health and affect employment or education.

The lead researcher of the study, Elizabeth Weir, a Ph.D. student at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, said: “These findings help us understand the experiences of autistic adults better and have wider implications for a quality life. We need to understand why a restricted diet, limited exercise, and lack of sleep provide better support. This may include programs 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 behaviors extend into adulthood. Given the implications for risk of chronic disease and length of life, we must work to identify effective strategies for supporting health choices by autistic people of all ages.”

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.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Weir, E., et al. An investigation of the diet, exercise, sleep, BMI, and health outcomes of autistic adults. Molecular Autism 12, 31 (2021). DOI: 10.1186/s13229-021-00441-x

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