Babies who are born prematurely are monitored closely to track their development, especially their cognitive development, as they grow. A new study published in The Journal of Pediatrics has found that most of these babies, by the time they are teens, are able to perform in cognitive tests as well as teens who were born at full term. The study found that the family and social environment a child is raised in is far more predictive than their gestational age at birth.
"Every year, 10% of Australian babies are born preterm, and many studies have shown that these children often have cognitive difficulties in childhood," says one of the lead authors of the study, Dr Julia Pitcher from the University of Adelaide's Robinson Research Institute.
"This new study has some positive news. We looked at the factors that determine cognitive abilities in early adolescence, and found that whether or not you were born preterm appears to play a relatively minor role. Of significantly more importance is the degree of social disadvantage you experienced in your early life after birth, although genetics is important," Dr Pitcher says.
The study, conducted by Research Officer Dr Luke Schneider, assessed the cognitive abilities of 145 preterm and term-born young people now aged over 12. He also assessed data on social disadvantage at the time of birth and at the time of the cognitive assessment.
"The results of our study provide further proof that those born at term tend to have better cognitive abilities -- such as working memory, brain processing efficiency and general intellectual ability. But the postnatal environment seems to be playing an important role in whether or not a preterm child is able to overcome that initial risk of reduced brain development," Dr Schneider says.
Image: Preemie, via Shutterstock