Preemies: Keep a Close Watch on That Heart

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Cardiovascular risks may increase for adults who were born prematurely

August 12, 2013 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

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(dailyRx News) Even when babies are born prematurely, they often lead healthy, normal lives. However, “preemies” can face increased health risks, including some that can affect their hearts in adulthood.

About one out of nine babies is born prematurely every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those born prematurely have to be aware of potential health issues that may come later in life.

Scientists have recently discovered that adults who were born prematurely may have higher chances of cardiovascular problems.

"Have your heart checked regularly if you were born prematurely."

Paul Leeson, PhD, a cardiologist at the University of Oxford’s Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility in England, and colleagues examined how the heart forms and functions in adults who were born prematurely.

These researchers tracked 102 premature babies from birth until an average age of 25, and compared their findings to 132 individuals who were born at full-term. Those who are born prematurely arrive at least three weeks before the 40-weeks of a full-term pregnancy.

Compared to the full-term adults, those who were born prematurely (preemies) had smaller but heavier right ventricles (right lower heart chambers). These ventricles had thicker walls and less pumping capacity.

Dr. Leeson and his group also observed that both the size and function of the right ventricle were more affected the earlier the person was born.

The researchers noted that changes in the right ventricle’s structure and function in older adults may raise the risks for heart failure and cardiovascular death. They stressed, however, there was no evidence of these problems in the young people who participated in the current study.

Dr. Leeson told dailyRx News, “The reason we did the study was because we know that some people who were born preterm — particularly if their mother had blood pressure problems during pregnancy — tend to have higher blood pressure in later life. We want to understand why this might happen so that we can give targeted advice to those people about reducing their cardiovascular risk.

“Checking blood pressure is an easy thing to do and should be part of a general heart healthy lifestyle for everyone,” he advised.

In addition to taking blood pressure and cholesterol measurements, the investigators used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to evaluate participants' hearts and blood vessels. With the help of computer programs, they created models of the hearts to analyze their structure and gauge how much blood was being pumped.

For those who have a preemie child now, Dr. Leeson told dailyRx News, “At this early time in life the important thing to focus on is dealing with being born preterm and acknowledging the amazing medical advances that have allowed more and more preemies to survive into adulthood.”

In terms of future research, Dr. Leeson said that they are currently studying whether these changes in the heart are already evident at birth or whether they develop during childhood and adolescence.

“This will help us understand how they relate to development of heart health throughout life,” Dr. Leeson said.

This study was published August 12 in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation. The British Heart Foundation funded the study.