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Health & Baby

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Preterm, Small Birth Tied to Heart, Brain Risks

But researchers say exercise, education may help overcome deficiencies

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Dennis Thompson

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Sept. 1, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Babies born early or at low birth weight are at risk later in life of having smaller, less efficient brains or health problems that increase their risk for heart disease, according to a pair of new studies.

But even though these children face potential lifetime disadvantages, researchers in both studies -- published online Sept. 1 in Pediatrics -- found that these obstacles can be overcome.

Education appeared to negate the potential harmful effects of small birth size on a person's brain performance, while high blood pressure and high cholesterol can be modified through diet and exercise, the researchers said.

"These two papers both represent a deconstruction of the idea that your future is written in your genes," said Dr. Edward McCabe, chief medical officer of the March of Dimes. "The things that happen to us in utero [in the womb] or when we should be in utero appear to have an impact on the rest of our lives, but there are steps you can take to modify these outcomes."

The first study, led by the U.S. National Institute on Aging, used data on over 1,200 babies born in Iceland to track their brain development over 75 years. The research team had access to decades-old midwife records, which enabled them to compare birth weight and size to how the now-senior participants had fared.

Researchers found that babies born at a smaller birth size -- an indication of impaired fetal growth during the third trimester -- tended to have smaller brains late in life, said senior author Lenore Launer, a senior investigator at the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

Many of those born prematurely tended to think more slowly as older adults and were less able to effectively make plans, stay organized and manage their time, the study authors said.

However, these deficits in brain performance only held true for people who received less education early in their lives, the investigators found. People with more education performed well on brain function tests, even if their brains were physically smaller.

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