When preemies grow up to be young adults, they could face slightly increased death rates, according to a new study based on Swedish data.
Health problems are common among preterm babies, who also are more likely to die than their full-term peers during the first few years of life.
But the new findings overturn previous beliefs that preemies go on to have normal death rates once they have survived their early childhood, said Dr Casey Crump of Stanford University, whose findings are published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"This is an entirely new finding," he told Reuters Health. "Even people born just a couple of weeks early had an increased risk of mortality."
Problems linked to earlier death
But he added that the results should not cause undue alarm.
"The absolute mortality was still less than one per 1,000 people per year, so it's very low," Crump said.
His team studied a group of nearly 675,000 Swedes born between 1973 and 1979.
They found children born before 37 weeks of pregnancy were much more likely to die before age five than others. That link disappeared in late childhood and adolescence, but then re-emerged in early adulthood from 18 to 36 years. Crump said health problems linked to earlier death included heart disease, diabetes and asthma.
Regular checkups for preterm birth survivors
"It appears that some of these causes have a long period of development," he explained.
Among young adults born at 22 to 27 weeks' gestation, the death rate was 0.94 per 1,000 people per year. For those born between week 37 and 42, considered full-term, the rate was 0.46 per 1,000.
According to Crump, between 12 and 13% of babies in the US are now born preterm, and the rate of survival has risen fast over the past few decades.
"I think it's important to be aware of the potential for an increased risk of various health problems through the life course," he said. "It will be important for survivors of preterm birth to get regular health checkups and screening and to avoid smoking and obesity to offset these risks."
(Reuters Health, September 2011)