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The hearts of babies born prematurely develop differently following birth, and continue to be different even into adulthood, a new study by RDM researchers finds. These changes may explain their increased risk of developing heart failure early in life, amongst other adverse effects.

The study, which was funded by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and published in the journal Pediatrics, found that those born pre-term had physical impairments to their heart that may increase their vulnerability to cardiac problems in adolescence or young adulthood.

Premature birth is defined as being born before 37 weeks. Each year, more than 51,000 babies are born pre-term - around 1 in 13 births - in England & Wales (2). Previous research has shown that people who are born early are at greater risk of developing heart failure early in life and are more likely to have abnormalities in the structure and function of their heart. However, the extent and evolution of those changes throughout development from birth to young adulthood has not been well defined.

The researchers gathered data from thirty-two previous research studies that looked at the heart’s performance in new-borns, infants, children, adolescents and young adults and compared the data from people born pre-term and full term.

They found that in those born pre-term, the left and right ventricles – chambers in the heart that pump blood to the lungs and the body - were smaller at every developmental stage. They also found that the right ventricle’s ability to pump blood was reduced at all ages, while the left ventricle’s performance worsened with age.

As a result of their findings, the authors suggest that people born pre-term should receive healthy lifestyle counselling and, where appropriate, be screened for signs of cardiovascular disease.

Study lead Dr Adam Lewandowski, said: “These changes in cardiac structure and function seen in pre-term born individuals may make their heart more susceptible to developing heart failure.

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As pre-term delivery is relatively common, and the survival rate is increasing, there is a growing case for using people’s birth history as a way of identifying people who might have a heightened risk of heart problems. This would enable people to take proactive steps, early in life, to protect their future heart health
- Dr Adam Lewandowski

 

Dr Noel Faherty, Senior Research Advisor at the BHF, said: “Heart failure in childhood and adolescence is rare, so parents with children who were born prematurely should not be unduly worried.

“However, this study is an important addition to our understanding of how premature birth can influence how our hearts develop between birth and adulthood.

 “It is only through research like this that we can discover new and better ways to prevent and treat heart and circulatory diseases. That work is only possible thanks to the generosity of the public.”

(Text adapted from BHF original)

Read more about the study in Dr Lewandowski's article in The Conversation

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