Dr Manny's Notes

Environmental Factors May Be to Blame for Increase in Developmental Disabilities



According to a government report, one in six children in the United States has some kind of developmental disability. The number has been steadily increasing over the course of the past decade.

The study was based on ongoing national surveys of children under the age of 18. It included a range of disabilities, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, blindness, cerebral palsy, hearing loss, seizures, stuttering or stammering and other developmental delays.

From 1997 to 2008, the proportion of children with at least one of the conditions increased from less than 13 percent to more than 15 percent. This translates to a rise of 1.8 million kids.

Government researchers are uncertain as to why the increase happened, but speculate that a number of factors may be responsible.

For example, there is a bigger emphasis on early treatment now, and parents are more likely to be aware of the conditions, which means that kids who may have gone undiagnosed previously are now being recognized.

On the other hand, the rise may also be due to a change in risk factors, such as parents having children later in life and having more preterm babies.

ADHD rates among children accounted for most of the rise, while autism rates showed the fastest growth. Hearing loss, meanwhile, dropped over the course of the study period.

Researchers say that it is important for medical professionals to be prepared to accommodate the increasing numbers of children with developmental disorders. They also encourage parents to continue to have their children screened, because it is possible that despite the noticeable increase, a number of children may still be going undiagnosed.

I agree with the government’s advice and want to emphasize how important early screening is. The earlier a developmental disability is caught, the less it will affect the course of a child’s life. I have seen this myself with my son, who was diagnosed with a very early age with autism and has made huge strides since.

I also want to further question why this is happening. A part of me truly feels that we are metabolically poisoning ourselves from all the chemicals we get exposed to on a daily basis, whether it’s food, electronics or environmental pollutants.

I fear that we are going backwards in dealing with the complications that we typically have been trying to avoid in pregnant women for the past 15 years. I think part of the problem is that many women still don’t realize the significance of being healthy prior to pregnancy or don’t understand the advice of obstetricians and midwives.

To minimize the risk of a child being born with a disability, it is important curb risk factors such as maternal obesity and smoking. Good nutrition and mental stimulation is also key in encouraging healthy development.

By decreasing or eliminating these risk factors, hopefully we can see a decrease in childhood disabilities over the next decade.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.