Study finds young adults born preterm live with elderly lungs

Adult survivors of preterm births may have a lung capacity that resembles the healthy elderly or casual smokers by the time they reach their early 20s, says Andrew Lovering, associate professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon.

Lovering was lead author on a study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, comparing the lung function of adults born after fewer than 32 weeks to adults born full-term.

Many adults born as preterm infants show symptoms of a mild form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease by the time they reach early adulthood, Lovering says. COPD, commonly known as smoker’s lung, typically results from smoking or exposure to air pollution. COPD affects nearly 329 million people worldwide and was the third-leading cause of death in 2012, according to most recent statistics kept by the World Health Organization.

As a progressive disease, COPD gradually restricts lung function over time. For adult preterm survivors with COPD, even if the rate of decline in lung function remains normal throughout their life, they will likely develop respiratory complications at a much younger age, Lovering said. The more rapid decline of their lung function will lead to accelerated development of fatigue and poor exercise capacity, as well as an overall reduction in their quality of life.

Researchers have yet to reveal the most effective means of caring for preterm survivors as they enter adulthood. According to Lovering, few respiratory physicians routinely inquire about the neonatal period when treating their patients. Preterm adults may often be misdiagnosed as asthmatic, although the underlying causes may be different.

“Additional research is needed to find better ways to serve adult survivors of preterm birth,” Lovering said. “We need to better understand how we can help them maximize their quality of life and lung health as they age.”

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— By Andrew Stiefel, Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation