Estimating life expectancy and years of life lost for autistic people in the UK: a matched cohort study

Elizabeth O'Nions, Dan Lewer, Irene Petersen, Jude Brown, Joshua E.J. Buckman, Rebecca Charlton, Claudia Cooper, CÉline El Baou, Francesca Happé, Jill Manthorpe, Douglas G.J. McKechnie, Marcus Richards, Rob Saunders, Cathy Zanker, Will Mandy, Joshua Stott*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

Background: Previous research has shown that people who have been diagnosed autistic are more likely to die prematurely than the general population. However, statistics on premature mortality in autistic people have often been misinterpreted. In this study we aimed to estimate the life expectancy and years of life lost experienced by autistic people living in the UK. Methods: We studied people in the IQVIA Medical Research Database with an autism diagnosis between January 1, 1989 and January 16, 2019. For each participant diagnosed autistic, we included ten comparison participants without an autism diagnosis, matched by age, sex, and primary care practice. We calculated age- and sex-standardised mortality ratios comparing people diagnosed autistic to the reference group. We used Poisson regression to estimate age-specific mortality rates, and life tables to estimate life expectancy at age 18 and years of life lost. We analysed the data separately by sex, and for people with and without a record of intellectual disability. We discuss the findings in the light of the prevalence of recorded diagnosis of autism in primary care compared to community estimates. Findings: From a cohort of nearly 10 million people, we identified 17,130 participants diagnosed autistic without an intellectual disability (matched with 171,300 comparison participants), and 6450 participants diagnosed autistic with an intellectual disability (matched with 64,500 comparison participants). The apparent estimates indicated that people diagnosed with autism but not intellectual disability had 1.71 (95% CI: 1.39–2.11) times the mortality rate of people without these diagnoses. People diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability had 2.83 (95% CI: 2.33–3.43) times the mortality rate of people without these diagnoses. Likewise, the apparent reduction in life expectancy for people diagnosed with autism but not intellectual disability was 6.14 years (95% CI: 2.84–9.07) for men and 6.45 years (95% CI: 1.37–11.58 years) for women. The apparent reduction in life expectancy for people diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability was 7.28 years (95% CI: 3.78–10.27) for men and 14.59 years (95% CI: 9.45–19.02 years) for women. However, these findings are likely to be subject to exposure misclassification biases: very few autistic adults and older-adults have been diagnosed, meaning that we could only study a fraction of the total autistic population. Those who have been diagnosed may well be those with greater support needs and more co-occurring health conditions than autistic people on average. Interpretation: The findings indicate that there is a group of autistic people who experience premature mortality, which is of significant concern. There is an urgent need for investigation into the reasons behind this. However, our estimates suggest that the widely reported statistic that autistic people live 16-years less on average is likely incorrect. Nine out of 10 autistic people may have been undiagnosed across the time-period studied. Hence, the results of our study do not generalise to all autistic people. Diagnosed autistic adults, and particularly older adults, are likely those with greater-than-average support needs. Therefore, we may have over-estimated the reduction in life expectancy experienced by autistic people on average. The larger reduction in life expectancy for women diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability vs. men may in part reflect disproportionate underdiagnosis of autism and/or intellectual disability in women. Funding: Dunhill Medical Trust,?>Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health and Care Research, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Original languageEnglish
Article number100776
JournalThe Lancet Regional Health - Europe
Volume36
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2024

Keywords

  • Autism
  • Intellectual disability
  • Life expectancy
  • Premature mortality

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