The tiniest premature
infants often cling to life for weeks in intensive-care units while their
parents worry about what physical and mental health problems their babies might
face as they grow up.
But researchers say they
now have some reassuring news to report: Although those who start life as
"extreme preemies" do face more health, social and economic
difficulties during childhood or young adulthood, most of them are satisfied
with their lives as adults.
might be the most important fact overall," said study author Dr Brian
Darlow, a professor of paediatric research at the University of Otago,
Christchurch, in New Zealand.
More health problems
Darlow and his team have
been keeping tabs on 230 young adults who were born at very low birth weights, around
13 kg or less. The young adults, who were born in 1986, sat down with
researchers to answer questions about their lives, social circumstances and
The researchers also asked
the same questions of 69 people who were the same age, but were born at normal
Their findings are
published in the journal Paediatrics.
As a group, the preemies
hadn't gone as far in school as their normal-weight peers. They were about half
as likely to have received a college degree. They also were more likely to say
they didn't have friends or significant others, or to be sexually active. And
they reported having more health problems and hospitalisations.
But the study authors said
many of those statistical differences were driven by the 10% of very low birth
weight babies who had more severe mental and physical disabilities at ages 7
and 8. By and large, the kids who were doing well in grade school continued to
function well as adults.
There were no differences
in rates of drug use, criminal activity, or mental or behavioural problems.
Those who were small at birth were significantly less likely to report using
Fully functioning adults
Perhaps most important of
all, they scored the same on measures of self-esteem and life satisfaction as
those who were normal weight at birth.
Darlow said the study
participants, who are now aged 26 and 27, are undergoing another battery of
psychological testing and will soon repeat the same questionnaire. It's his
belief that they probably won't see any difference in measures of friendships
or social functioning this time around.
"My guess is that the
social isolation will be much less and probably no longer present at all, so in
that area maybe they have just taken a little longer to catch up," he
Another expert said the findings
should comfort parents of very low birth weight babies.
"The fact that the
long-term data looks this good is very heartening," said Dr Jill Rabin,
chief of ambulatory care, obstetrics and gynaecology at Long Island Jewish
Medical Centre in New Hyde Park, New York. "I think parents can take heart and
"You can really make
up what the child didn't get in the beginning from being very low birth weight
or premature," Rabin said. "Eventually they do catch up, and are able
to be fully functioning adults."
For more on low birth
weight and prematurity, visit the March
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