Older Autistic Adults at Higher Risk for Health Issues
June 01, 2023
By: Sherri Alms
Two new studies have found older autistic adults are at risk for age-related physical conditions and injuries and are particularly susceptible to certain mental health issues. The studies were presented at the International Society for Autism Research (INSAR) annual meeting, held May 3-6 in Stockholm, Sweden. The research presented is considered preliminary until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal.
In the study on physical health, a research team headed by Shengxin Liu, a Ph.D. student at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, found that older autistic adults had higher risks of a range of conditions, including heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), osteoarthritis, anemia, glucose dysregulation (a blood sugar level that fluctuates abnormally) and self-harm. Other conditions commonly seen were type 2 diabetes, falls, spinal issues, and problems in the esophagus, stomach, and small intestine.
The researchers reviewed data on people born between 1932 and 1967 in Sweden, excluding those who died or emigrated before age 45. The team followed them from age 45 through the end of 2013, looking at 39 physical conditions associated with age. Reasons for the increases in the different health conditions varied, according to Liu. Anemia, for example, may be more common because some autistic people are selective about what foods they will eat. “With these restricted eating behaviors, they might lack, for instance, iron, which resulted in iron-deficiency anemia. This definitely persisted into older autistic adults,” he noted.
Lauren Bishop, an associate professor of social work and investigator at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, interviewed for an article about the INSAR studies on the HealthDay News website, noted that social determinants of health may also exacerbate or exaggerate the disparities found in the study.
She pointed out that higher rates of unemployment and underemployment factor into issues that could affect health like higher rates of poverty, housing instability, and lower quality of medical care, for example. She also said that “autistic adults experience high perceived stress and increased likelihood of feeling as though they have to camouflage their autistic traits to fit in with society.”
In the second study, on social connectedness among older autistic adults, researchers in London found that those with autism were particularly susceptible to lower quality of life, more mental health problems, and less social connection. Women were lonelier than men. Better social connectedness was a strong predictor of having both fewer mental health problems and better quality of life for those with autism.
“Our findings did align with what we expected, but I was surprised and saddened by how many of the middle-aged and older autistic participants experienced social isolation and loneliness,” said researcher Gavin Stewart, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at University College London.
The researchers used data from the AgeWellAutism study to examine answers to both standardized and open-ended questions from 428 adults aged 40 to 93. The research team was looking for associations between quality of life, mental health problems, and the experience of loneliness among middle-aged and older adults with autism.
Some of those surveyed said they struggled with being autistic in a world designed for non-autistic people. Stigma and barriers made it difficult to access employment and education, among others.
“Some also mention that they don’t just lack social support from friends and family, but they also lack formal support from health care professionals, too. This means that, for some, their health care needs aren’t being met,” Dr. Stewart said in the HealthDay News article.
Dr. Stewart noted that more research is needed to improve “the accessibility for autistic people to get involved in existing socialization opportunities in their communities. And the best way to do that is to work with autistic people as research partners, as they are experts in their own experiences.”
Sherri Alms is the freelance editor of The OARacle, a role she took on in 2007. She has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 20 years.