Any parent with a premature baby knows all too well the stress and worry that comes with life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Not only are parents concerned for their baby’s immediate health, but when they leave the NICU, many unanswered questions persist about their babies’ long-term challenges. According to a new study, children born prematurely have, overall, good health outcomes into adulthood. That’s good news for the nearly 11 percent of babies worldwide who are born prematurely every year, and for the United States, where the rate of premature birth is on the rise.
Many babies born too early (before 37 weeks gestation) have difficulty with eating, digesting food, temperature regulation, and breathing. Because of these early challenges, studies have shown that preemie babies are at increased risk for cognitive, behavioral, and vision problems as they grow up. But researcher and lead author Dr. Casey Crump saw that there was something missing from the established data set. Of all the different studies on the effects of prematurity, none had looked at positive adult health outcomes and how frequently the risks of premature birth are actually realized.
Dr. Crump’s study, recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at 2.5 million children born in Sweden between 1973 and 1997, around six percent of whom were born prematurely. Researchers examined the health data of the premature babies from between the ages of 18 and 43, and compared their outcomes with data from those who had been born at full term. They were especially looking at conditions that had previously been linked to prematurity, such as asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, mental conditions, cerebral palsy, and epilepsy.
What they found was that of the premature babies, 55 percent grew into adulthood with no serious physical or mental health complications. This is extremely comparable to the 63 percent of those born full-term who also had no physical or mental health issues. That’s only an eight percent difference in adulthood outcomes between children born prematurely and children born at full term.
The study noted that, while the data they looked at during this time frame was very good, it’s possible that there could be more of a contrast between term and preterm health outcomes in later years of life.
But while the news is good for many, the earlier babies are born, the harder it becomes to avoid complications. Only 22 percent of the most premature babies were without any chronic health issues in adulthood. Every week and every day spent in the womb contributes to better outcomes. Because of this, Dr. Deborah Campbell, director of neonatology at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York City, told Health Day that this should translate into more support for maternal health to try to prevent preterm birth whenever possible.
“Our findings reflect the apparent resilience of preterm birth survivors in maintaining good health,” Dr. Crump told Reuters Health. “Despite increased risks of several chronic disorders, the majority can still have good overall health in adulthood.”
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