A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) reveals that children born before 37 weeks gestation have an increased risk of early death during early childhood and early adulthood compared to children born full-term. The study included more than 600,000 children born from 1973 to 1976 in Sweden.

While the immediate effects of pre-term birth are well-known, doctors have little information on the long-term effects of pre-term birth. With an increase in pre-term deliveries, this research study sheds light on the potential outcome on early childhood and early adulthood lifespan.

There were just more than 7,000 deaths before the age of 36. Of those deaths, the highest rate of mortality occurred in the population between 18 and 36 years of age. Researchers believe the connection lies in congenital abnormalities caused by pre-term birth. The connection was found in all pre-term births, including late pre-term (between 34 and 36 weeks gestation).

Infants born pre-term are closely monitored for developmental delays for the first few years of life. When pre-term infants “catch-up” with full-term peers, the monitoring typically stops. However, this research presents a new set of findings that could be reason enough to continue closer monitoring throughout early childhood and early adulthood.

This is thought to be the first study connecting pre-term delivery with shortened life-span with death in early childhood and early adulthood. Researchers need to focus more closely on the possible connection and specific details of life, including childhood nutrition and other lifestyle factors, in future studies.

According to study authors, “The underlying mechanisms are still largely unknown but may involve a complex interplay of fetal and postnatal nutritional abnormalities; other intrauterine exposures, including glucocorticoid (a steroid hormone) and sex hormone alterations; and common genetic factors.”

Source: C. Crump, K. Sundquist, J. Sundquist, M. A. Winkleby. The Journal of the American Medical Association. 21 September, 2011.