TIME Autism

Diabetes During Pregnancy Could Be Linked to Autism, Study Finds

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Reasons for the potential link are uncertain

(CHICAGO) — Diabetes that develops early in pregnancy may increase women’s chances of having a child with autism, according to a new study.

The risk was seen in young children whose mothers were diagnosed with diabetes during the most crucial period of fetal brain development. Reasons for the potential link are uncertain but it’s possible that exposure to high levels of blood sugar from the mother disrupt fetal brain growth, especially in brain regions important for communication and social behavior, said study co-author Dr. Edward Curry, a learning and behavior specialist for Kaiser Permanente in Fontana, California.

Here are five things to know about diabetes in pregnancy, autism and the study, published in Tuesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association.

THE STUDY

The researchers looked at medical records for more than 322,000 children born at Kaiser Permanente hospitals in Southern California between 1995 and 2010. Those whose mothers developed gestational diabetes by the 26th week of pregnancy were 40 percent more likely to be diagnosed with autism than those whose moms didn’t have diabetes. Of about 3,400 autistic children, 130 were exposed to diabetes early in pregnancy.

Autism affects about 1 in 68 U.S. children. In the study, youngsters whose mothers had pre-existing diabetes or developed it later in pregnancy faced no extra autism risk.

AUTISM

Autism refers to a spectrum of developmental disorders that typically involve problems communicating, limited social skills and sometimes intellectual difficulties or quirky, repetitious behaviors. Definitive causes aren’t known but it is thought to occur when genetic differences interact with many other factors. Previous studies have suggested these may include prenatal infections, preterm birth and parents’ age

DIABETES

Diabetes prevents the body from making or properly using insulin, which causes sugar to build up in the blood. The study looked specifically at gestational diabetes, which develops during pregnancy and puts women at risk for future diabetes. It can be dangerous for women, and can cause preterm birth or large newborns who are at risk for diabetes later in life. Gestational diabetes is thought to affect up to about 14 percent of U.S. pregnancies.

STUDY LIMITATIONS

Some previous studies linked diabetes in mothers with autism but lacked details on gestational versus pre-existing diabetes.

The authors of the new study, led by Kaiser Permanente researcher Anny Xiang, looked back at medical records that included gestational diabetes information — a research method that can only show potential links, not proof. They couldn’t rule out different factors that may have contributed to autism including other prenatal problems and genetics.

THE ADVICE

The findings underscore the importance of prenatal care, including diabetes screening and treatment early in pregnancy. But the authors note that more research is needed to determine if early treatment of gestational diabetes can reduce autism risks.

Read next: 7 Things Every Kid with Autism Wishes You Knew

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TIME medicine

How Traumatic Life Events During Childhood Affect Diabetes

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Researchers say that traumatic life events can play a role in raising risk of type 1 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes tends to get more attention than type 1, mainly because the risk factors for type 2—obesity, for instance—are thought to be more in our control. Type 1 is believed to be primarily a genetic disease, triggered by an unfortunate DNA configuration that signals the body’s immune system to destroy insulin-producing beta cells.

Now, in a report published in the journal Diabetologia, Dr. Johnny Ludvigsson, a pediatrician from Linkoping University in Sweden, and his colleagues say that life events, including traumatic experiences such as the death of a family member or a serious accident, can triple the risk that young children have of developing the disease.

The researchers studied 10,495 families with children born between 1997 and 1999 and asked them to participate in at least one of four follow-up sessions when the children were between two and 14 years old. The parents filled out questionnaires about whether the children had experienced anything that might be considered a serious life event, including things like the death of a family member, a new sibling, divorce or a move. Parents were also asked about their own stress and whether they felt they had social support.

Once the scientists adjusted for factors that also contribute to type 1 diabetes, such as BMI, mother’s age and a history of diabetes in the family, children who experienced deaths and accidents in their early years showed a three-fold higher risk of developing diabetes than those who didn’t live through these events.

“People may be worried and have feelings of guilt that not only did their child get diabetes, but that in a way they contribute to it,” says Ludvigsson of the results. But parents should take some solace in the fact that after he adjusted for other factors that can contribute to type 1 diabetes, including BMI, mother’s age at child’s birth, and family history of diabetes, events such as divorce, new siblings and other changes in the family structure weren’t as strongly associated with an increased risk for the disease.

What may be happening is that some children may have a genetic predisposition to developing type 1 diabetes, but these genetic triggers aren’t “activated” unless they experience some extreme stress or trauma, such as the death of a loved one. Biologically, scientists believe that high stress situations may lead to a boost in the hormone cortisol, and that pushes the beta cells that produce insulin to work harder and release other potentially toxic factors as well. The added influx of insulin may be viewed by the immune system as abnormal and undesirable, which may prompt them to start attacking the beta cells and destroying them.

“This study does not say that you should never divorce,” says Ludvigsson. “But stress from life events can be one factor that influences the immune balance, just like many other factors do, like sleep, physical activity and so on.” Which highlights the need to address traumatic experiences and children’s reactions to them. Supporting families that go through difficult times, whether caused by marital conflicts or financial worries, could also be an important way to keep young children even healthier and to avoid certain chronic diseases. “If society could be a bit supportive, we could perhaps save some families and relationships, and that would be good for the children,” says Ludvigsson.

TIME Parenting

Unhappy Families Can Make Daughters Fat

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A new study suggests that stress at home can have a major impact on our kids' waistlines

Childhood obesity has become such a big problem in the United States that the rate of obese adolescents—21%—exceeds the rate of overweight adolescents (14%). It’s been that way for the last decade.

Dr. Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor at the University of Houston, wants to figure out why despite our efforts, that rate hasn’t budged. “Many times when we’re designing interventions and prevention programs, they’re done in schools because that’s where we have ease of access to all these kiddos,” she says. “But the issue is that in those interventions, we don’t think about the family environment and what could be happening at home.”

In her new study published in the journal Preventive Medicine, she decided to look at three family stressors: family disruption and conflict, the kind a kid would experience after a parent got divorced, remarried, incarcerated or if the child experienced a violent crime or death of a loved one; financial stress, a measure of poverty determined in part by whether a mom was unemployed or had less than a high school education; and maternal poor health, whether the mom was a binge drinker, drug user or had elevated depression.

MORE: Mindfulness Exercises Improve Kids’ Math Scores

Hernandez analyzed data from 4,762 adolescents between 1975-1990 using the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. She measured each adolescent’s exposure to these family factors from birth until age 15, then looked at their weight at age 18. The results showed clear gender differences. In adolescent girls, experiencing family disruption and financial stress repeatedly was linked to overweight or obesity by age 18. That wasn’t true for adolescent boys. Just one stress point—poor maternal health—was linked to being overweight or obese by 18.

When all the findings were lumped together, Hernandez says, the gender differences disappeared. “Not all stress influences females and males the same,” she says. The reason why lies beyond the scope of this study, but Hernandez suspects it has something to do with physiolgocial and behavioral stress responses. Your body secretes cortisol when it’s stressed, she says—which, if chronic, suppresses your body’s ability to feel satiated. “Behaviorally, you then gravitate more towards the more palatable foods, the high calorie, high fat foods, so you’re not reaching for that apple or celery stick,” she says. This pattern seems to be more prevalent in females than in males, she adds.

“We really need to think about how we are teaching our adolescents how to deal with stress, and trying not to use food as a way to deal with stress,” Hernandez says. “Perhaps encouraging physical activity is the way we should be going.”

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TIME medicine

This Is What Binge Watching TV Does to Your Health

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Every hour spent sitting in front of the TV can increase your risk of diabetes

It’s easy—and tempting—to settle in for a marathon session with your favorite TV show, but that indulgence may come back to haunt you.

In a study of people at higher risk of developing diabetes, researchers say that every hour spent sitting can increase the risk of developing the metabolic disorder by 3.4%. For a day-long binge, that could be as much as a 30% higher risk. “With streaming TV, you can watch a program continuously; instead of watching just half an hour once day a week, you can watch a whole season in a day, so we expect to see increases in sitting to continue,” says Andrea Kriska, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh and senior author of the paper on the effects of TV on diabetes risk in the journal Diabetologia.

Kriska is part of the Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group, which found that people who spent more time sitting, whether in front of the TV or at work, were more likely to develop diabetes than those who sat less, regardless of how much they exercised.

MORE: Sitting Is Killing You

The group started with the population of people at higher risk of developing diabetes who were enrolled in the Diabetes Prevention Program. Some were assigned to exercise at least 150 minutes at a moderate level each week and change their diet with the goal of losing 7% of their body weight. Others were given the diabetes drug metformin, and another group was given a placebo. In 2002, after more than three years, those who adopted the lifestyle changes lowered their risk of developing diabetes by 58%, compared to 31% for those taking the drug.

More and more data suggest that to reduce disease, it’s not just enough to exercise more; you have to sit, less too. The scientists wanted to see what role, if any, sitting played in this reduction. Did being more physically active lead to helping people be less sedentary? And did time spent sitting have any connection with the rate of diabetes?

MORE: Sitting Can Increase Your Risk of Cancer By Up to 66%

“What we found was yes, and yes,” says Bonny Rockette-Wagner, from the department of epidemiology at Pittsburgh. “There is an independent effect of sitting behavior on diabetes incidence that does not have to do with physical activity. It’s an independent, additional effect.”

The researchers asked the 3,232 people in group how much time they spent sitting at work and how much time they spent watching TV, as a proxy for their total sedentary time. They also asked them about their leisure time physical activity and measured their blood glucose levels. After three years, the lifestyle group spent fewer hours sitting than the metformin and placebo groups, despite the fact that sitting less was not a specific goal of the program. And the more time they spent off their chairs, the lower their risk of going on to develop diabetes.

MORE: An Hour of Exercise Can Make Up for a Day of Sitting Down

The results suggest that efforts to help high-risk people avoid diabetes should include a goal of sitting less. That’s what Kriska and Rockette-Wagner are starting to do in their community sessions in which they teach people about the Diabetes Prevention Program. Instead of focusing exclusively on the target of 150 minutes of exercise each week, they’re asking people to think about sitting less, starting by spending a few minutes fewer on the couch each day and building up to becoming more active.

MORE: Sitting All Day Isn’t As Bad If You Do This

The researchers admit that simply sitting less won’t replace being physically active, but after so much focus on getting sedentary people to move, getting them to think about sitting less may be just as productive.

TIME Obesity

This Place Just Became the First Part of the U.S. to Impose a Tax on Junk Food

TIME.com stock photos Food Snacks Candy
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

It also eliminated a 5% sales tax on healthy produce

The Navajo Nation, which suffers from a 10% obesity rate, is imposing a 2% junk-food tax on its reservation beginning April 1.

Navajo president Ben Shelly approved the Healthy Dine Nation Act last November, which from this week will also eliminate a 5% sales tax on healthy fare including fresh fruits and vegetables.

Revenues from the sin tax will reportedly be channeled toward community wellness projects like farmer’s markets, vegetable gardens and greenhouses in the 27,000 sq. mi. of Navajo reservation spanning from Arizona and New Mexico to Utah.

Approximately 24,600 Navajo tribe members face obesity, according to the Navajo Area Indian Health Service. Type 2 diabetes has emerged as a growing public health concern afflicting up to 60% of reservation residents in some areas.

With nearly half of the Navajo youth population facing unemployment and 38% of the Navajo reservation at the poverty level, supporters say the act may serve as a prototype for sin taxes to curb obesity in low-income communities across the U.S.

By comparison, around one-third of Americans nationwide are classified as obese, the highest rate in the world.

TIME Research

Google Granted Patent for Smart Contact Lens

This undated photo released by Google shows a contact lens Google is testing to explore tear glucose.
Google/AP Google's smart contact lenses.

May allow people with diabetes to easily measure glucose levels

Google has been granted a patent for a contact lens with an embedded chip,

The patent, which was discovered by WebProNews, features a sensor in the lens. Google has previously said that it is partnering with the pharmaceutical company Novartis to create a smart contact lens that could monitor blood sugar for people with diabetes.

As TIME has previously reported, Google has been testing various prototypes of smart contact lens and is currently in talks with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about a lens that measures glucose levels in users’ tears. The company says the chip and sensor are embedded between two layers of contact lens material and a tiny pinhole lets tear fluid from the eye reach the glucose sensor, and the sensor can measure levels every second.

Diabetics must currently prick their fingers throughout the day to measure blood sugar levels, but Google believes the contact lenses would be less invasive and allow people with diabetes to check glucose more often and more easily.

When asked if the patent is indeed for the smart contact lens for diabetes patients, Google told TIME the company does not comment on patent filings. “We hold patents on a variety of ideas—some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents,” a Google spokesperson said in an email.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

What Diet Soda Does to Belly Fat

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More evidence that diet soda contributes to weight gain, not weight loss

A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that people who drank diet soda gained almost triple the abdominal fat over nine years as those who didn’t drink diet soda. The study analyzed data from 749 people ages 65 and older who were asked, every couple of years, how many cans of soda they drank a day, and how many of those sodas were diet or regular.

Those answers ended up being extremely predictive of abdominal-fat gain, even after the researchers adjusted for factors like diabetes, smoking and levels of physical activity. People who didn’t drink diet soda gained about 0.8 in. around their waists over the study period, but people who drank diet soda daily gained 3.2 in. Those who fell in the middle — occasional drinkers of diet soda — gained about 1.8 in.

That change in waist circumference is especially concerning because it highlights an unfortunate truth about weight distribution: the belly is a bad place for extra pounds. The kind that pads the abs from the inside, called visceral fat, is associated with increased cardiovascular disease, inflammation and Type 2 diabetes.

MORE Is Diet Soda Bad for You?

These results, which the study authors call “striking,” add to the growing body of evidence that no- and low-calorie sweeteners may come with health concerns. Though scientists are still puzzling through the mechanisms by which diet soda seems to have the unintended consequence of weight gain, they have some ideas. Sugar-free sodas contain substances that sweeten up soda at 200-600 times the sweetness of sugar.

“Regular sugar has caloric consequences,” says the study’s senior author Dr. Helen Hazuda, professor of medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. And one of those is that it triggers satiety — a sense of fullness or satisfaction. “Your body is used to knowing that a sweet taste means you are ingesting energy in the form of calories that, if you don’t burn them off, is going to convert to fat,” she says. Artificial sweeteners, however, confuse our bodies and weaken the link in our brains between sweetness and calories. That, Hazuda says, can lead to weight gain and cravings for sweeter and sweeter treats.

There may be something else at work. A recent study in mice showed that artificial sweeteners actually changed the gut bacteria of mice in ways that made them vulnerable to insulin resistance and glucose intolerance — both of which can lead to weight gain. And other mice research suggests that artificial sweeteners are associated with a drop in the appetite-regulating hormone leptin, Hazuda says. Leptin is the hormone that inhibits hunger.

MORE 13 Ways to Stop Drinking Soda for Good

The Calorie Control Council, an association that represents the reduced-calorie food and beverage industry — including alternative sweeteners — disagreed with the study’s findings. “The use of low-calorie sweeteners (LCSs) in weight management has been shown to be beneficial,” the group said in a statement. “While approaches to treat obesity in older individuals is controversial, diet modifications can be a successful part of a weight-management program for older adults.”

Researchers in the new study found that belly-fat gain was most pronounced in people who were already overweight. “People who are already at cardiometabolic risk because they have higher BMIs are really in double or triple jeopardy,” Hazuda says. “When they think they’re doing something good by drinking artificially sweetened beverages, it’s actually totally counterproductive.”

Read next: 5 Weird Ways to Consume Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day

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TIME Healthcare

The Most Expensive Place in the World to Have Diabetes

A new review looks at the global impact of diabetes

The U.S. is the most expensive place to have Type 2 diabetes, with an average lifetime price tag of $283,000, according to a new study published in the journal PharmacoEconomics.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) analyzed 109 studies on the economic impact of Type 2 diabetes and found that costs are higher in the U.S., even compared with other countries with similar income levels.

“Employment chances for women with diabetes in the U.S. are decreased by almost half,” said study author Till Seuring of UEA’s Norwich Medical School in a statement. “Women with diabetes also lose out on $21,392 in earnings per year — the highest loss due to diabetes worldwide,” In other countries, men with diabetes suffer more when it comes to employment options, the data shows.

Still, the U.S. appears to be an exception. Diabetes has the greatest economic toll for people in low- and middle-income countries, the research finds. Most new cases are appearing in countries in this economic stratum, including Mexico, India and China.

Diabetes affects over 380 million people worldwide, the researchers say. That number is expected to balloon to 592 million people by 2035.

Check out the findings in the infographic below.

University of East Anglia

Read next: What Diet Soda Does to Belly Fat

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TIME Heart Disease

Statins May Seriously Increase Diabetes Risk

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Statins can lower cholesterol and even tamp down inflammation to keep the risk of heart disease down. But these commonly prescribed drugs may increase the risk of diabetes, and by a considerable amount

Doctors may have to weigh a serious potential risk before prescribing statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs that are among most prescribed drugs in America. In a study published in Diabetologia, scientists from Finland found that men prescribed statins to lower their cholesterol had a 46% greater chance of developing diabetes after six years compared to those who weren’t taking the drug. What’s more, the statins seemed to make people more resistant to the effects of insulin—which breaks down sugar—and to secrete less insulin. The impact on insulin seemed to be greatest among those who started out with the lowest, and closest to normal, levels of blood glucose. And the higher the dose of the statin, and the longer the patients took them, the greater their risk of diabetes.

Previous studies have suggested that statins can raise blood sugar levels, and increase the risk of diabetes by anywhere from 10% to 20%, but none have documented an effect this large. Doctors often consider statins for patients who are at higher risk of heart disease, and one of the risk factors for future heart trouble is diabetes. So how do these results affect that decision?

“It’s a good news-bad news scenario,” says Dr. Robert Eckel, past president of the American Heart Association and professor of medicine at University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Although there is convincing evidence that patients on statins are at increased risk of new-onset diabetes, the benefit accrued [from statins] in reducing risks of heart attack, stroke and fatal heart disease trumps the effects of being new onset diabetics.”

In other words, the good that statins can do for people who are not yet diabetic but at higher risk of heart problems outweighs the increased risk of diabetes.

MORE New Guidelines for Cholesterol Treatments Represent “Huge Change”

And while the increased risk that the Finnish scientists found — 46% — is noteworthy, Eckel points out that the study involved only white men, and therefore may not be generalizable to a broader population. It’s not clear what the men’s family history or personal history of diabetes was; some may have had other risk factors for the disease that put them at higher risk of developing diabetes anyway, even if they didn’t take a statin.

Those who developed diabetes while taking statins were similar on many metabolic measures to those who developed diabetes but weren’t taking statins, suggesting that “that statin treatment increased the risk of diabetes independently of the risk profile of the background population,” the authors write. In a separate, U.S.-based study on statins, researchers found that those who went on to develop diabetes while taking statins also had risk factors for the disease before they started taking the medications.

MORE Should You Take Statins? Study Says Heart Benefits Outweigh Diabetes Risk

Which means that for confused patients, and their doctors, the current advice about who should take statins doesn’t change. The results, in fact, highlight the need for a discussion rather than just working through a checklist before prescribing statins. For patients who may not yet be diabetic, but are vulnerable to developing the disease and also may need a statin, Dr. Neil Stone, lead author of the 2013 American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association cholesterol guidelines, says he stresses the importance of lifestyle changes in diet and exercise.

“If you have a patient who is prone to developing diabetes, you’re getting into a higher risk group, because they also have risk factors associated with heart disease. So they have the potential to benefit from statins. If they are going to take a statin, I tell them we are going to help you get more fit, and work with your lifestyle. It’s even more important because if you don’t do that, and the patient decides to take the statin and go on with their unhealthy habits, then they are going to be even more prone to developing diabetes,” says Stone.

The patient’s family history of diabetes is another important part of the decision to start someone on a statin. It’s all about making sure that each patient’s risks and benefits are weighed carefully. And the potentially greater risk of diabetes created by statins should be part of that consideration. “Communication here is everything,” says Eckel.

Read next: New Hormone Discovered That Curbs Weight Gain, Diabetes Just Like Exercise

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TIME Research

New Hormone Discovered That Curbs Weight Gain, Diabetes Just Like Exercise

“This represents a major advance in the identification of new treatments for age-related diseases such as diabetes”

Scientists have discovered a new hormone that mimics the health benefits of exercise by normalizing the metabolism and slowing the weight gain caused by fatty diets.

Appearing in the scientific journal Cell Metabolism on Tuesday, the study found the newly discovered MOTS-c hormone increases insulin sensitivity, allowing the body to more effectively process glucose sugars, according to a press release from the University of Southern California.

Insulin is a hormone that is used to move glucose sugars from food into the blood stream; resistance occurs when levels are high for a long period of time — commonly from a poor diet — which increases the body’s tolerance to the hormone and can lead to type 2 diabetes.

The new MOTS-c hormone targets muscle tissue and reverses age-dependent and diet-related insulin resistance.

“This represents a major advance in the identification of new treatments for age-related diseases such as diabetes,” said Dr. Pinchas Cohen, senior author of the study.

Researchers injected the new hormone into lab mice eating high-fat foods that usually lead them to become obese. The injection suppressed the weight gain and also reversed the insulin resistance caused by their diet.

While tests were only administered on mice, the necessary mechanisms are present in all mammals, humans included.

Read next: 5 Non-Diet Factors That Can Affect Your Weight

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