Preterm Birth Linked to Autism, ADHD, Epilepsy Later in Life: Study

Moderate to late preterm births account for 80% of all preterm births, researchers noted.

Infants born moderately to late preterm face an increased risk of developing autism and other neurodevelopmental impairments in childhood and as they grow older, according to the findings of a new study.

A birth is considered preterm when an infant is born earlier than 37 weeks of pregnancy, and premature newborns are known to face a higher risk of several serious health side effects, ranging from low birth weight and breathing difficulties, to underdeveloped organs and vision problems. However, it also may increase the risk of other serious health effects later in life.

In a study published last month in the medical journal The BMJ, a group of international researchers conclude that infants born between 32 weeks to 36 weeks of pregnancy face a higher risk of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and epilepsy.

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Researchers from Sweden, France, and China analyzed data from the Swedish national register for more than 1.2 million children born from 1998 to 2012. They compared data for children born moderately preterm, between 32 to 33 weeks of pregnancy; children born late preterm, born 34 to 36 weeks of pregnancy; and those born full-term, after 39 weeks of pregnancy.

According to the findings, more than 75,000 children developed at least one neurodevelopment impairment. Overall, nearly 5,900 children had a movement impairment, 27,000 had a cognitive impairment, 11,900 developed epilepsy, roughly 20,000 had a visual impairment, and 20,000 had a hearing impairment.

Children who developed neurodevelopment impairments suffered from issues with behavior, affecting their ability to learn, the researchers noted.

Preterm Birth Neurodevelopmental Risks

The data indicates that children born moderately or late preterm had a higher risk of developing any impairment than a child born at full-term. However, the highest risk was for children born moderately preterm, who had a fivefold increased risk of suffering from motor impairments and double the risk of developing epilepsy.

The risk was the highest around 32 weeks of pregnancy and decreased as children were born later during pregnancy.

Researchers noted that moderate to late preterm births account for 80% of all preterm births, representing a large portion of infants born in the U.S. each year, or nearly 289,000 infants every year.

The study concluded that the neurodevelopmental risks posed to these preterm children are significant and must be taken into consideration when mothers are cared for during prenatal medical visits.

These new findings follow an earlier study published last summer, which found that there is a “dose-response” link between preterm birth and autism, indicating the earlier an infant was born during pregnancy, the greater the risk of ASD. Another previous study published in November 2022 linked preterm birth to an increased risk of developing cerebral palsy and other developmental disorders.

Researchers said the findings of this latest study might help doctors and families achieve a better risk assessment and address infant’s neurodevelopmental needs during childhood and adolescence.

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