Add lung problems to the health risks some preterm babies may face as they grow older. According to a new study from British researchers, babies born long before their due dates—at 25 weeks of pregnancy or earlier—are twice as likely as children born at full-term to be diagnosed with asthma by the time they turn 11. Published April 22, 2010, in an advanced online edition of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the study tracked all babies born on or before the 25th week of pregnancy in the UK and Ireland during a 10-month period in 1995.
Researchers tested children for lung function and respiratory health at 2, 6, and 11 years of age and then compared results to randomly selected same-age children. By age 11, 56 percent of extremely preterm children showed impaired lung function and 25 percent had a diagnosis of asthma (twice the normal asthma rate). Even when preterm children did not experience any respiratory symptoms for up to a year before testing, nearly half still showed abnormal lung function test results.
"For a variety of reasons, rates of preterm birth are increasing in developed countries," explains Janet Stocks, professor of respiratory physiology at the University College London, Institute of Child Health and study lead author. "Despite sophisticated medical interventions, we know that preterm birth is often associated with serious respiratory problems. We wanted to look at the longer-term implications of the complications as these children grow up"
According to researchers, parents of at-risk preterm infants can take steps to reduce the likelihood (or severity) of lung problems and asthma by placing special emphasis on a healthy family lifestyle with "respect to diet, exercise, and smoking prevention in order to preserve available lung function for as long as possible."
Stocks also urges follow-up medical care throughout childhood to make sure symptoms receive the earliest intervention possible. "There needs to be long term surveillance of this population ... throughout childhood ... Many of these children may not be receiving appropriate treatment," Stocks says.