The mental and physical health of older adults with a genetic predisposition for autism

Stewart, Gavin R.; Corbett, Anne; Ballard, Clive; Creese, Byron; Aarsland, Dag; Hampshire, Adam; Charlton, Rebecca A and Happe, Francesca. 2020. The mental and physical health of older adults with a genetic predisposition for autism. Autism Research, 13(4), pp. 641-654. ISSN 1939-3792 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Autism commonly aggregates in families, with twin studies stimating heritability to be around 80%. Subclinical autism-like characteristics have also been found at elevated rates in relatives of autistic probands. Physical and psychiatric conditions have been reported at elevated rates in autistic children and adults, and also in their relatives. However, to date there has been no exploration of how ageing may affect this pattern. This study examined cross-sectional data from the ongoing online PROTECT study. A total of 20,220 adults aged 50 years and older reported whether they have an autistic first-degree relative. In total, 739 older adults reported having an autistic first-degree relative (AFDR group) and 11,666 were identified as having no family history of any neurodevelopmental disorder (NFD group). The AFDR group demonstrated significantly higher frequencies of self-reported psychiatric diagnoses and a greater total number of co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses than the NFD group. Furthermore, the AFDR group reported elevated current self-report symptoms of depression, anxiety, traumatic experience, and post-traumatic stress than the NFD group. By contrast, few differences between AFDR and NFD groups were observed in physical health conditions, and no differences were observed in the total number of co-occurring physical health diagnoses. These findings suggest that adults who have an autistic first-degree relative may be at greater risk of poor mental, but not physical, health in later life. Older adults with autistic relatives may benefit from close monitoring to mitigate this susceptibility and to provide timely intervention.

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This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: G.R. Stewart, A. Corbett, A, C. Ballard et al 2020. The mental and physical health of older adults with a genetic predisposition for autism. Autism Research. which has been published in final form at [DOI link here once available]. This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Use of Self-Archived Versions.

This paper represents independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London. This research was also supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care South West Peninsula and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Exeter Clinical Research Facility. GRS was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant number ES/P000703/1] via the London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR, the Department of Health, or the ESRC.


autism, ASD, broad autism phenotype, BAP, older adults, ageing, psychiatric conditions, mental health, physical health

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24 January 2020Accepted
11 February 2020Published Online
April 2020Published

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30 Jan 2020 17:05

Last Modified:

11 Jun 2021 17:38

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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