updated 8/9/2004 1:22:05 PM ET 2004-08-09T17:22:05

The earlier asthma begins in youngsters, the less likely they are to outgrow it by adulthood, according to a 17-year New Zealand study.

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Most children with asthma, particularly those with mild cases, outgrow the disease. The latest findings offer an additional way of predicting which childhood sufferers will have the disease as adults.

The study followed 613 children who were part of a long-running study of the physical and mental health of all children born in the New Zealand town of Dunedin in one year, starting in 1972. Some participants never had asthma, but nearly three-quarters experienced wheezing — asthma’s hallmark symptom — at some point.

Most long-term asthma studies test patients treated by specialists at academic medical centers, a group likely to have more severe asthma.

The study was reported in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine. It was led by Dr. Malcolm R. Sears, former professor of medicine at University of Otago in New Zealand. He is now at McMaster University in Canada.

It found that the risk of an asthma relapse by age 26 rose steadily the earlier the wheezing began. Those whose asthma began 10 years earlier than others were 69 percent more likely to have a relapse by 26.

Dunedin is a university town of about 100,000, mostly residential and with little pollution, on the southern part of New Zealand’s South Island.

Asthma cases in the United States jumped from 31,400 people per 1 million residents in 1980 to 38,400 per million in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma deaths also rose during that time, from 14.4 to 17.2 per 1 million people.

Among the theories given for the increase: Cleaner households and wider use of soap and antibacterial products have reduced the number of germs children are exposed to; as a result, their immune systems are more sensitive to allergy-triggering substances.

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