The first large study of its kind finds that adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have higher than normal rates of nearly all major medical and psychiatric disorders. Moreover, their increased health problems extended across all age groups – from young adults to senior citizens.
Epidemiologist Lisa Croen, of Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, presented her team’s findings today at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR).
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Mining Kaiser medical records
Dr. Croen and her colleagues reviewed the medical records of more than 2.5 million adults enrolled in the Kaiser Permanente Northern California health plan from 2008 to 2012. This included 2,108 adults with autism, 683 of them women. For comparison, the analysis also included 21,080 non-autistic patients.
Adults with ASD also had higher rates of less-common conditions such as eating disorders, injury from falls, vision and hearing impairments, osteoporosis and chronic heart failure.With the exception of cancer, the autism group had higher rates of all major psychiatric and medical conditions included in the study. (See table right.)
Among women with autism autoimmune disorders, asthma and allergies were 20 to 30 percent compared to women without the disorder. Women with ASD also had double the rates of alcoholism and chemical dependencies as women without ASD. This held true despite the fact that drinking and smoking, overall, were half as common among adults with autism versus non-autistic adults.
An urgent call for proactive care
“These findings make clear that the medical issues associated with autism in children don’t go away with age,” comments developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president and head of medical research. “They need to be assessed and addressed by physicians who care for adults with autism – just as we’ve learned to address them in the children we see in the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.” (Learn more about medical conditions associated with autism in children here.)
“We know that autism can affect multiple body systems,” Dr. Wang adds. “For this reason, many individuals with autism need coordinated medical care akin to the team approach we use in the Autism Speaks ATN.”
Similarly, Dr. Croen is calling on providers of adult healthcare to become more knowledgeable about the needs of adults with autism, while also learning how to better communicate with these vulnerable patients.
“We know that adults with autism can become socially isolated and that this can interfere with good nutrition, diet, exercise, and many of the things we know can lead to medical and psychiatric conditions,” she says. “We are also seeing lower rates of preventive care in this population.”
Dr. Croen also emphasizes the importance of developing guidelines for an effective transition from pediatric to adult healthcare for those with autism. Such transition care is already a major focus of the Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network.
“Beyond improving our healthcare system, it’s equally important to look at the interaction and engagement of adults with autism in all sectors of our society,” Dr. Croen adds. “We need to better understand what’s happening with these individuals in the realms of social services, employment, education, community and family. Together, these play a powerful role in a person’s health.”
In related research, Autism Speaks has funded research by Dr. Croen and her team to use Kaiser Permanente’s large medical database to increase understanding of risk factors and biological markers for autism. Read more about these research projects here.
Dr. Croen described the team's findings at the IMFAR press conference. View her full remarks in the video clip above.