Preterm Birth and Adult Illness

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Crump cited growing evidence of adverse effects on multiple organ systems and elevated risk of mental illnesses, along with lasting disabilities like epilepsy, hypertension, hypothyroidism and gastric disorders. People also may be at risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, research shows.

In landmark research, Crump and colleagues at Lund University followed 700,000 Swedish-born people to the ages of 29 through 36. Those with less than 37 weeks of gestation had higher death rates in young adulthood than those nurtured longer in the womb.

The earlier the birth, the greater the risk of death from causes ranging from respiratory disorders to diabetes and heart disease that were not explained by other sociodemographic factors, said Crump.

Scientists do not clearly understand the interrelation between premature birth and later health problems.

Neurodevelopment may be affected by intrauterine hypoxic brain injury, and that also is associated with pregnancy complications linked to pre-term birth, said Crump. More directly, the early birth itself could play a role “through interruption of normal brain development at its most critical period,” he added.

Cardiovascular disease and diabetes, on the other hand, may result from other mechanisms involving perinatal nutrition or hormone alterations that are associated with preterm birth, as well as genetic factors, he said.

Given that the web of influences on health, including infant exposures, societal factors and  medical advances, changes even within generations, Wise said it’s difficult to make assumptions about the future health of babies born preterm today. The study of preterm birth nevertheless opens vast opportunity to address adult health risks at a very early stage.

“Whatever risk prematurity conveys to this generation is likely to be highly interactive with other forces of society shaping health and disease,” he said. “The fact there are linkages between being born prematurely and adult onset disease is important and underscores another reason that that we need to prevent preterm birth. But it also serves as an illustration of how important early life can be to setting in motion risk over a lifetime”