It's long been known that being born prematurely increases an infant's chance of dying in the first year of life. But for preemies who survive that first year, does the risk persist?
A new Stanford study, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, answers that question. Individuals born at least three weeks early were more likely to die in young adulthood than those born after full-term pregnancies – and the more premature the birth, the greater the risk of early death. The study, which examined nearly 675,000 Swedes born in the 1970s, is the first to link premature birth to mortality in young adults aged 18 to 36.
The most common causes of death among young adults born prematurely were congenital anomalies and respiratory, endocrine and cardiovascular disorders. The research team, which was led by Casey Crump, MD, PhD, did not see any connection between premature birth and death from neurologic disorders, cancer or injury.
The findings are part of a larger trend in pediatric medicine: As care for fragile infants and children improves, more and more survivors of pediatric health crises live into adulthood. But their physicians may not be familiar with the unique health care needs of these adults.
As Crump and his colleagues conclude:
Although most survivors [of preterm birth] have a high level of function and self-reported quality of life in young adulthood, our previous and current findings demonstrate the increased long-term morbidities and mortality that may also be expected. Clinicians will increasingly encounter the health sequelae of preterm birth throughout the life course and will need to be aware of the long-term effects on the survivors, their families, and society.