Lasting Effects of Being Born Too Early

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Bernd Vogel/Corbis

For the first time, researchers document why it’s so important to help premature babies develop in utero for as long as possible.

In a review of nine studies of extremely premature babies, born between 22 and 25 weeks of gestation, researchers found that compared with babies born at full term, premature infants had a significantly increased risk of developing neurological impairments when they were 4 to 8 years old.

It’s not the first hint that preemies are at higher risk of health issues for being born before their development was completed. Some recent studies showed, for example, that babies who were born earlier had poorer test scores in reading and math compared with those born full term. A study published in 2011 that analyzed the long-term effects of premature birth on cognitive abilities such as memory and attention span in early adulthood revealed that people who were born extremely premature performed worse on executive function tests and took longer to complete higher-order intellectual tasks. As adults, these individuals also scored an average of 8.4 points lower on IQ assessments compared with people who were born at full term.

(MORE: Extremely Premature Babies Still at Risk of Health Issues as Youngsters)

The fact that the effects of premature birth last into adulthood is concerning, since they are not only at a disadvantage in some cognitive functions, they even have a reportedly higher risk of death in early adulthood as well. Advancements in care of premature babies have undoubtedly improved, but lessening their health risks is still a task at hand. In 2012, a team of researchers from the University College London Institute for Women’s Health reported that death rates and health problems among extremely preterm babies has remained unchanged for decades.

“We didn’t expect to see rates disappear,” study author Neil Marlow, professor of neonatal science at the University College London Institute for Women’s Health, told TIME. “We wanted to determine a more global picture of extreme preterm survival and later problems. Since 1995, we’ve done a lot of things that could change these outcomes … But things are relatively unchanged. There are improvements in survival and survival without disability, but rates and distributions of problems are similar.”

But can all the studies of adverse health effects translate into constructive momentum? There’s no doubt the onslaught of continuous news of bad outcomes isn’t comforting to parents of children born before their time. But there are certain things to remember. Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental-and-behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York, says parents should keep in mind that significant medical advancement is typically made by the time a study is published.

(MORE: How Long Do the Effects of Being Born Premature Last? Until Adulthood)

Studies looking at participants born 20 years ago, or even five years ago, will not necessarily be looking at the most up-to-date clinical practice. But the research does lay out the risks for these children, and it gives parents and clinicians a heads-up for what to look out for during development. “[The studies] do provide us with a sense for what the greatest risk factors are for newborns, whether it be lung disease, bleeding in the brain, severe infection. It allows clinicians to treat those risk factors,” he says.

Understanding potential outcomes and risk factors also help researchers identify and explore preventative strategies, so the most common and harmful risks are taken care of.