Extremely premature infants often face lifelong challenges, enduring more physical, emotional and social difficulties as adults than their peers born full-term, researchers report.
In general, however, these tiny babies grow up to contribute to society and live independently, a study of nearly 200 adults in Canada has found.
Still, researchers found those born very prematurely were more likely to be unemployed, earn less and have chronic health problems compared to those born full-term. A higher proportion were single, said they’d never had sex, and tended to engage in fewer risky behaviors.
“Most of these differences were accounted for because they had neurological impairments like cerebral palsy and blindness,” said lead researcher Dr. Saroj Saigal, a professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
If you exclude the 20 percent with physical or neurological disabilities, some of the differences disappear, she said. For example, most were employed.
“However, there are still differences in household income, which was about $20,000 lower, and they were more likely to be single,” Saigal said.
“Despite these differences, most are still doing reasonably well in life,” Saigal said.
In addition, they tend to be shyer and not as socially engaged as those born at normal weight, which may account for some of these variations, Saigal said.
The findings are positive, a March of Dimes spokesperson said.
“These kids have done remarkably well, better than people would have expected,” said Christine Gleason. She is a high-risk neonatologist and professor of pediatrics at Seattle Children’s Hospital, and medical advisor to the March of Dimes.
Gleason noted that these study participants were born years ago, when only 40 percent of preterm infants survived.
Because of advances in neonatal care, many more preterm infants survive today, “but there are problems that can affect their entire life,” Gleason said. “That’s why it’s important to prevent premature birth in the first place.”
The report was published online May 23 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
For the study, Saigal and colleagues followed 100 extremely low birth weight premature babies until they were 29 to 36 years old. The investigators compared them with 89 adults born at term and normal weight. On average, the preemies weighed less than 2.2 pounds at birth.
Although both groups attained similar levels of education and had similar family relationships, the researchers did find some differences.
Specifically, 80 percent of the adults born prematurely were employed in the last year versus 92 percent of those born at term.
In addition, 31 percent of those born prematurely were not dating or rarely dating compared with 13 percent of those born at term. The study also found that 9 percent of those born early identified as gay or bisexual versus 2 percent of those born at term, and 21 percent were virgins compared with 2 percent of those born at term.
Moreover, 20 percent of those born early had children, compared with 33 percent of those born at term.
Chronic health conditions, often eye problems, were twice as common for the preemie group — 25 percent versus 13 percent. Those born very small also had lower self-esteem, but they were also less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, the findings showed.
For more on premature babies, visit the March of Dimes.