Many young adults in their early 20s who were born prematurely have lungs that are like those of a healthy older person or a casual smoker.
Premature infants are at increased risk for contracting bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a chronic respiratory condition mainly affecting infants born less than 28 weeks of age.
The condition primarily affects preterm infants who receive oxygen therapy to help them breathe. The higher levels of oxygen, as well as the increased pressure from the ventilator used for treatment, can result in tissue scarring in the lungs.
For a new study, researchers compared the lung function of adults born after fewer than 32 weeks to adults born full-term.
Previous research has indicated that infants with BPD are at a higher risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive condition that makes it harder to breathe.
COPD, commonly known as smoker’s lung affects 329 million people worldwide—and is most often a consequence of smoking or exposure to air pollution. It was the third-leading cause of death worldwide in 2012, according to the World Health Organization.
Researchers looked at three groups: 20 adults born prematurely with BPD, 15 adults born prematurely without BPD, and a control group of 20 healthy adults born full-term. All went through a series of tests designed to examine lung function during exercise.
The study, published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, suggests that adults born prematurely without BPD, like their counterparts with it, show symptoms of a mild form of COPD by their mid-20s. Lungs don’t function as efficiently as those in the control group and they tire more easily as a result.
“We were expecting more variation between the two preterm groups—with and without BPD,” says Andrew T. Lovering, professor of human physiology at University of Oregon. “We didn’t anticipate that they would share a similar lung profile.”
Even if the rate of decline in their lung function remains normal throughout their lives, adult preterm survivors with COPD likely will develop respiratory complications at a much younger age, Lovering says. A more rapid decline will lead to fatigue and poor exercise capacity.
There is no effective means of caring for adult preterm survivors as they enter adulthood, he says.
Few respiratory physicians routinely inquire about the neonatal period when treating their patients. Preterm adults often are misdiagnosed as asthmatic, although the underlying causes may be different.
Other researchers from University of Oregon and from Ohio University are coauthors of the study. The American Heart Association funded the work.