Post image for New findings on consequences of preterm births

New findings on consequences of preterm births

September 26, 2013

An unprecedented study of preterm birth suggests that only some of the problems previously associated with preterm birth are actually caused by preterm birth itself.

The new study by Indiana University Bloomington researchers confirms the strong link between preterm birth and the risk of infant and young adult death, autism ,and ADHD. But it also suggests that other threats that have been closely tied to the issue, such as severe mental illness, learning problems, suicide, and economic woes, may instead be more closely related to other conditions that family members share.

“The study confirms the degree to which preterm birth is a major public health concern and strongly supports the need for social services that reduce the incidence of preterm birth,” says lead author Brian D’Onofrio, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. “Yet, the findings also suggest the need to extend services to all siblings in families with an offspring born preterm. In terms of policy, it means that the entire family, including all of the siblings, is at risk.”

The study, “Preterm birth and mortality and morbidity: A population-based quasi-experimental study,” was published in JAMA Psychiatry. Co-authors include medical researchers from Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm.

In what is thought to be the largest population-based study of preterm births to date, the researchers looked at records of 3.3 million children born in Sweden between 1973 and 2008. Comparing siblings and considering a broad continuum of premature gestational ages, the study examined the associations between preterm birth and mortality, psychological health, educational outcomes, and social functioning.

Unlike previous studies, which compare preterm infants to unrelated non-preterm infants, the current study compared preterm infants to their non-preterm siblings and cousins — an approach that made it possible to shed new light on the problem.

“The study has given us insights that no other study has been able to do,” D’Onofrio says.

The problem with previous studies that compared preterm infants to unrelated non-preterm infants, D’Onofrio explains, “is that preterm birth is associated with a lot of other factors that are also predictive of poor outcomes in the offspring. So you are not sure if preterm birth or all these other factors actually cause these harmful outcomes. Trying to tease apart what is due to preterm birth, or due to everything that goes along with preterm birth, is very difficult.”

Comparing siblings is a way of controlling for and holding constant everything those siblings share: mothers and fathers, socioeconomic status, and some genetic factors.

Using this method, the researchers’ results were strikingly different from previous findings in a number of areas. For example, the association between preterm birth and severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, was greatly reduced when comparing siblings. Both siblings had higher chances of severe mental illness than the general population. For suicide, the findings are even more dramatic. Although individuals born preterm are more likely to attempt suicide than unrelated individuals who were not born preterm, no distinction exists between siblings.

This suggests, D’Onofrio says, “that part of the association with severe mental illness and all of the association with suicide isn’t due to preterm birth; it is due to something else, something that siblings share.”

The difference occurred again when researchers looked at income. Being born at an earlier gestational age is associated with low income when compared to unrelated individuals born at 40 weeks of gestation. But comparing siblings, it becomes apparent that other factors that siblings share cause the low income.

“Our study is part of a growing interest in research and public health initiatives focusing on very early risk,” D’Onofrio said. “When you look at early risk factors, they don’t just predict one type of problem; they frequently predict lots of problems with long-term implications.”

Exploring how these factors have subsequent ramifications across numerous domains and functions — mortality, physical and mental health, intellectual abilities, social outcomes — is a burgeoning area of research for a problem that is increasingly widespread. According to the World Health Organization, in both developing and industrialized countries, more than one in 10 children are born prematurely, and the numbers are growing.

Co-authors in the IU Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences are research scientist Martin E. Rickert and graduate student Quetzal A. Class; and in the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Henrik Larsson, Niklas Langstrom and Paul Lichtenstein.

The research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Swedish Research Council, and the Swedish Prison and Probation Services.

Leave a Comment