Many very premature infants appear to play catch-up by early adulthood, reaching levels of education and employment that are similar to those of normal-weight children, a study found.
The mostly reassuring results are the latest installment from Canadian researchers studying the development of 166 premature babies born in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The babies weighed 2 pounds or less. The infants have been tracked from their birth in central-west Ontario into childhood and beyond.
The results contrast with less favorable outcomes in other long-term studies, but the Canadian children had benefits other preemies lacked, noted an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which published the study Wednesday. Most were white, from economically stable two-parent families and their health care was assured by Canada’s national health care system.
More than 80 percent of youngsters in both the preemie and normal-weight groups graduated from high school; about a third of each group were pursuing college or other postsecondary education when the study was written. Nearly half the preemies and only slightly more of their peers had permanent jobs.
More of preemies were unemployed and not in school in early adulthood — 39 versus 20. Those results are explained by mental and/or physical disabilities related to their premature births, the researchers said. Forty of the preemies had a disability, including cerebral palsy, blindness, mental impairment and autism.
Still, roughly equal numbers in both groups lived independently or were married or living with a partner.
“Against our expectations and many odds, a significant majority of extremely low-birthweight young adults have overcome earlier difficulties to become functional members of society,” said the researchers, led by Dr. Saroj Saigal at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
The results “provide surprising and to a certain extent reassuring information,” said the editorial in JAMA by researchers at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
By contrast, a study of prematurely born young adults in Cleveland who had less favorable educational outcomes involved many youngsters who were black and from economically disadvantaged single-parent families, the editorial said.
The JAMA study involved 149 of the 166 infants in the original group; the researchers were unable to contact nine youngsters and eight refused to participate in the young adult study, including six with neurological impairments.
The control group consisted of 133 participants born at a normal weight, including three with neurological problems.