Premature delivery of a baby comes with a long list of potential complications, including prolonged hospital stays, difficulty breathing and difficulty maintaining proper body temperature due to low levels of fat on the neonatal body. Long-term side effects have also been noted, and according to researchers from the University of Oxford, there is one more long-term side effect to add to the list - increased risk of heart disease. The study was published in the journal Circulation.

Researchers followed 102 premature infants as the core study group and 132 full-term infants as the control group. All participants were followed from birth until they reached 23 to 28 years. The premature study group consisted of 14% born before 28 weeks gestation, 58% born between the 28th and 31st week of gestation and 31% born between the 32nd and 36th week of gestation – offering researchers varying degrees of prematurity.

General evaluations aimed at heart health and developments were used, including blood pressure measurements and cholesterol levels. MRI images were also taken to map out blood vessels and measure the size of the heart. Researchers then fed the information they collected into a computer program to evaluate how well the heart was working.

Based on the computer program, researchers were able to recognize an issue with the right ventricle – the chamber of the heart that receives deoxygenated blood was heavier and smaller in adults who were born prematurely. The right ventricle was also smaller in the premature group. A direct connection was made between gestational age and impact on the heart with the youngest premature group showing the strongest negative impact on right ventricle development.

In early adulthood changes in the right ventricle may not have any impact on heart health, but as the heart ages, researchers believe there could be an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and heart failure. None of the premature participants in the study showed signs of heart-related health problems, but participants were still in early adulthood when the study was completed.

Source: Lewandowski AJ, Bradlow WM, Augustine D, Davis EF, Francis J, Singhal A, Lucas A, Neubauer S, McCormick K, Leeson P. Right ventricular systolic dysfunction in young adults born preterm. Circulation. 2013 Aug 13;128(7):713-20. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.113.002583.