March 25, 2008 -- Preterm birth is associated with an increased risk of
death throughout childhood and a decreased likelihood of reproducing in
adulthood, according to surprising findings from one of the largest studies
ever to examine the health implications of premature delivery.
The findings suggest that there are even more long-term health issues
associated with being born prematurely than have been previously
Premature birth is a leading cause of infant death and childhood developmental delays in
industrialized countries, but its impact on mortality and health into adulthood
has not been well understood.
Long-Term Risks of Preterm Birth
In an effort to address this, researchers from Duke University Medical
Center followed Norwegians from birth, tracking gestational age at delivery,
mortality, and reproductive outcomes.
Using Norway's national birth registry, the researchers followed 1.16
million people born in the country between 1967 and 1988 for as little as 14
years and as long as 35 years.
Their findings appear in tomorrow's issue of the Journal of the American
The absolute death risk after reaching age 1 was quite low, regardless of
gestational age at birth.
But compared to children born full-term, the risk of dying before the age of
6 was found to be almost 10 times higher among girls born extremely prematurely
(between 22 and 27 weeks of gestation), and five times higher among boys.
Newborns are considered premature when they are delivered prior to 37 weeks
The increased risk of death persisted for extremely premature boys, but not
girls, until age 13.
"Pre-term birth is a major cause of infant mortality, so you would
expect to find more deaths in the first year of life or even the first couple
of years," researcher Geeta K. Swamy, MD, tells WebMD. "But we were
surprised to find that the increased risk persisted into childhood and even
into adolescence in boys."
Reproduction Rates Much Lower
Reproduction rates were also dramatically lower among men and women born
between 22 and 27 weeks of gestation, compared to those born full term.
About 68% and 50%, respectively, of the Norwegian women and men born at term
had reproduced by 2004, compared to just 25% of extremely preterm women and 14%
of extremely preterm men.
Reproduction rates increased with gestational age, suggesting that the
finding was not a matter of chance, Swamy says.
The reasons for the associations seen in the study remain unknown.
And it is not clear if babies born today face the same long-term risks as
those identified in the study.
The survival rate among babies born very prematurely continues to increase,
thanks to medical advances and aggressive management.
"We have better interventions to help babies survive, but we don't have
better interventions to prevent preterm births," Swamy says. "We really
need a better understanding of the causes of preterm delivery."