Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have a shorter life expectancy than people in the general population, and a new study suggests that lifestyle issues play a large role in shortening their lifespans.

Elizabeth Weir and colleagues collected data from 1,183 adults with ASD and 1,203 individuals without ASD who completed an anonymous online survey asking about their lifestyle, daily habits, personal medical history, and family medical history. The researchers found that the individuals with ASD were less likely than other participants to meet even minimal recommendations for diet, exercise, and sleep. They also were more likely to have atypical eating patterns and sleep disturbances, and to be underweight or obese. The researchers note that for males with ASD, lifestyle factors had a greater impact on the risk of cardiovascular disease than family history.

Simon Baron-Cohen, a coauthor of the study, says, “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.”

The researchers note that their study results may not be generalizable to all individuals with ASD, as all respondents had access to the internet and only 2% of respondents had developmental or intellectual disabilities. In addition, the sample was heavily weighted toward individuals who were white and female.

However, they conclude, “Although the present study can only provide preliminary, correlational evidence, our findings suggest that diet, exercise, and sleep should be considered and further investigated as key targets for reducing the now widely reported and dramatically increased risks of health comorbidity and premature death among autistic individuals compared to others.”

“An investigation of the diet, exercise, sleep, BMI, and health outcomes of autistic adults,” Elizabeth Weir, Carrie Allison, Ken K. Ong, and Simon Baron-Cohen, Molecular Autism, May 2021 (free online). Address: Elizabeth Weir, Autism Research Centre, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Douglas House, 188 Trumpington Road, Cambridge, England CB2 8AH, [email protected]

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“Diet, exercise and sleep linked to high risk of cardiovascular disease in autistic people,” news release, University of Cambridge, May 10, 2021.

This article originally appeared in Autism Research Review International, Vol. 34, No. 3, 2021