Parents are concerned when their little ones are born three weeks or more before their due date because premature babies are often at greater risk of having health problems. Even more worrisome: premature birth has been associated with an increased possibility of problems with learning and thinking skills later in life.
Well, here’s a bit of hopeful news: a new study from Sweden found that a majority of people born prematurely between the 1970s and 1990s survived into adulthood without experiencing serious health complications.
Researchers followed babies born in Sweden from 1973 to 1997, 5.8% of whom were born preterm. They then looked at the health conditions of these people through 2015 — they were around 18 to 43 years old during this period — and examined whether they had any diseases like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, lung disease, and neuropsychiatric disorders.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), found 55% of these premature babies, experienced no serious physical or mental health issues, compared to 63% of full-term babies.
“Our findings reflect the apparent resilience of preterm birth survivors in maintaining good health,” said Dr. Casey Crump, lead author of the study to Reuters.
Dr. Crump, who is also a researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, adds, “Despite increased risks of several chronic disorders the majority can still have good overall health in adulthood.”
After birth, premature babies often have breathing issues and difficulty digesting food. Some premature infants may also encounter long-term challenges like impaired vision, hearing and cognitive skills, and social and behavioral problems.
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For these reasons, researchers focused on chronic health issues that were typically contracted by adolescents and young adults like asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, and mental health issues. They also looked at health problems that could show up later in life like chronic lung, kidney, and liver diseases.
Only 22% of extremely preterm babies — those who are born at 22 to 27 weeks gestation — were alive without any serious chronic health problems by the end of the study. However, the numbers of this outcome steadily got better the longer babies were inside the womb.
According to the study, 49% of very preterm babies — born at 28 to 33 weeks — and 58% of late preterm infants — born at 34 to 36 weeks — were alive and generally healthy by early adulthood.
Because the study was conducted in Sweden, a country that has a national health care program, researchers say that their findings may be different from outcomes in other countries.
However, if there’s one thing that parents can take away from this, it’s that the survival rates of premature babies have steadily gone up over the years. This generation’s preemies also have a good chance at longer, healthier lives.
Breast milk is not only the best nutrition for all babies, but it is vital for a preemie’s brain development. Click here to find out how it can help.