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Research, led by Prof Paul Leeson, has shown that babies born prematurely may be at risk for structural heart abnormalities which can lead to additional cardiac risk factors such as high blood pressure as they age.

A researcher with a mother holding her young baby.
Credit: John Cairns.

102 premature infants (born before the age of 37 weeks) were studied from birth into their mid 20s and were compared to 132 individuals who were born at full term. The results demonstrated that as those born prematurely progressed into adulthood, the right lower chamber of the heart (the right ventricle) was smaller in size, but had walls which were significantly thicker with a pumping mechanism which was less efficient compared to those born full term. It was also shown that the more premature the birth, the greater overall decrease in size as well as function of the right ventricle. The results were published on 12 August in Circulation.

According to Prof Paul Leeson, “Up to 10% of today’s adults were born prematurely, and some have an altered higher cardiovascular risk profile in adult life. We wanted to understand why this occurs to that we can identify the small group of patients born premature who might need advice from their healthcare provider about this cardiovascular risk. The changes we found in the right ventricle were quite distinct and intriguing”.

It is hoped that a better understanding of the causes of these heart changes could lead to improvement in neonatal treatment.