(CBS) Does being born prematurely up the risk for premature death in adulthood? A provocative new study shows that death rates are significantly higher among young adults who had been born prematurely.
The first-of-its-kind study found that former preemies were 38 percent more likely to die between the ages of 18 and 36 than those who had been born at full term.
The study was based on records of almost 700,000 people born in Sweden between 1973 and 1979 and was published in the Sept. 21 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The death rate was elevated even among people who had been born only a couple of weeks early, study author Dr. Casey Crump, clinical assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University, told HealthDay.
"We all know that preterm infants have a higher risk of dying in the first few years of life, but that risk was believed to wane over time," Dr. Crump told Time. "This shows that an increased risk of mortality reappears in young adulthood. That's important news for survivors of preterm birth, their families and their doctors."
The study suggests that the increased mortality may be caused by health problems including lung and cardiovascular disorders and hormone irregularities - but not cancer, neurological problems, or accidents. But the exact mechanisms underlying the development of these problems, and how they contribute to mortality, are "largely unknown," the researchers said in a written statement.
"Some of these kids with congenital anomalies, like heart defects, are already aware of their problems," Dr. Kenneth Bromberg, chairman of pediatrics at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City, told HealthDay. "What we can't tell from this kind of large population data is if there are other ill-defined problems." Dr. Bromberg was not involved in the study.
What's the take-away message for former preemies?
"I think it's important to be aware of the potential for an increased risk of various health problems through the life course," Dr. Crump told Reuters. "It will be important for survivors of preterm birth to get regular health checkups and screening, and to avoid smoking and obesity to offset those risks."
It's a message that may have a lot of people listening. According to the statement, premature births now account for 12 percent of all births in the U.S.
The March of Dimes has more on premature birth.