New research underscores the importance of physicians looking for and addressing the neurological and mental health issues commonly associated with autism – with numbers suggesting that these conditions are driving the higher rates of premature death long associated with autism.
The researchers analyzed the medical records of nearly 2 million Danish children and young adults born between 1980 and 2010 who had survived beyond infancy. This included more than 20,000 who had autism. Their study confirmed earlier findings that, overall, people with autism have around double the risk of early death as people who don’t have the disorder.
But the increased risk was concentrated among those who had one or more of the neurological or psychiatric conditions commonly associated with autism. These include seizures (epilepsy), intellectual disability, anxiety and depression. Having one or more of these issues increased the risk of premature death as much as seven-fold, regardless of whether or not the child or young adult also had autism.
“Our research suggests that the mechanisms that bring about early mortality in persons with autism are shared with other neurologic or psychiatric conditions,” says study leader Diana Schendel.
“Importantly, this study underscores the need for physicians to look for and address autism’s many co-morbidities – beginning in childhood and early adulthood,” comments developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks head of medical research. (Autism Speaks was not directly involved in the study.)
The Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network, with 14 sites across North America, is dedicated to the comprehensive healthcare of children and teens with autism. Its physicians include specialists in the treatment of epilepsy, gastrointestinal issues, sleep disorders, anxiety and other autism-related medical and mental health issues.
“This study provides clues about what may be driving the reported increase in mortality among people with autism,” adds epidemiologist Michael Rosanoff, Autism Speaks director for public health research. Still, the overall rate of early death among the children and young adults with autism was just 0.3 percent , Rosanoff notes.