No high risk of adult mental illness or ADHD in extremely premature babies, Royal Women’s Hospital study finds

A study carried out in Melbourne three decades ago challenges the idea that babies born extremely premature are at a higher risk of suffering from ADHD or mood problems in adulthood.

The new research, which followed a group of extremely premature babies born in Victoria in the early 1990s into adulthood, found that the rate of adult mental health problems among premature babies is comparable to those born at term.

“We really consider this to be a very positive and encouraging set of results,” said Alice Burnett, researcher at the Royal Women’s Hospital and lead author.

She said it has been documented that babies born extremely premature were more likely to have ADHD – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – but their research found the difference narrowed by the time they were born. reached the age of 25.

“At age 25, extremely preterm youth and term youth had similar rates of ADHD, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse issues,” Dr. Burnett said.

In 1991 and 1992, researchers recruited a cohort of about 300 babies born extremely premature, that is, at less than 28 weeks or with a birth weight of less than 1000 grams.

A collaborative research group tracked their health outcomes against a control group of 300 full-term babies born at the same time.

Alice Burnett says the results can reassure families.(ABC News: Darryl Torpy)

Mark Bellgrove, a Monash University professor and ADHD expert, who was not involved in the study, said the research was conservative, controlled and showed promising results.

“It really suggests that the long-term outcomes for these children or preterm babies are better than once thought,” he said.

“This is good news for ADHD and for mental health outcomes more broadly.”

The researchers said there is a documented link between extremely premature birth and ADHD and childhood anxiety, so it was important for parents of premature babies to access support early in life.

Signage of the Royal Women's Hospital.
An independent expert says the study shows promising results.(ABC News: Darryl Torpy)

The study showed a generally high prevalence of mental health problems among the cohort of young adults, whether they were born preterm or not.

Between ages 18 and 25, for both groups, ADHD rates decreased while anxiety and depression increased.

“We know these are really common experiences for young people,” Dr. Burnett said.

“This study really highlights how important it is that supports are available if young people need them.”

The babies in the study are now grown

Holly Mason, now 30, has been involved with the study all her life.

She was born weighing just 881g in March 1992 and was so small she could fit in the palm of her mother’s hand.

A middle-aged woman holds a picture of a mother and baby.  A young adult woman is next to her.
Jodie Prideaux and Holly Mason have been involved in the study since Holly was born.(Provided)

Her mother, Jodie Prideaux, said she was only 25 weeks pregnant when she gave birth.

“They said there was no work stoppage,” she said.

“It was very scary, it was very intimidating – it felt like it went on forever.”

A hand reaches into a hospital bed to touch a baby.
Holly Mason could fit in her mother’s palm as a child.(Provided)

Holly has participated in studies assessing her mental and physical health with researchers at the Royal Women’s Hospital.

“I was more than happy to be a part of it, because I had been a part of it for most of my life,” she said.

Advances in neonatal care lead to improved mental health outcomes in adults

In the 1990s, survival rates for babies born extremely young more than doubled.

“There were major medical advances in the early 1990s to support lung development and general physical health for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit that really changed the rate of survival,” Dr Burnett said.

In previous decades, the survival rate for extremely premature babies was one in 10, but by the 1990s it had risen to around 56%.

Dr Burnett said she hopes the results of this study will be comforting to parents of premature babies born today and in recent decades.

“It’s a really exciting opportunity to be able to share some comfort with families,” she said.

“There are certainly still a lot of challenges, in terms of other areas of development for babies born extremely premature.

“As survival rates continue to improve, we have more and more of these babies, children, young people who are born very early.

“It’s really important that we understand what the results are for them.”

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