Premature babies may experience difficulties exercising as adults

May 1, 2014


Premature babies may have problems exercising as adults.

The arrival of a new baby is usually cause for celebration, but if the child is born prematurely, the celebration may be put on pause as parents and health care providers first nurse the infant to full health. There may be concerns about gaining sufficient weight, fighting off infection and taking in enough oxygen. Fortunately, thanks to advances in modern medicine, many preterm babies successfully make it out of intensive care.

However, what is less clear is how being born prematurely can impact adulthood. One team of scientists from the University of Oregon discovered that young adults who were born prematurely may experience some difficulties with breathing and blood pressure when they exercise, as presented at the Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego.

Lungs of babies are impacted
According to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, there are several factors that would put a mother at risk of delivering early. These include a history of premature labor, being pregnant with more than one baby, sexually transmitted infections, high blood pressure, weight problems, diabetes, stress and other issues.

Children who are born early face a wide range of problems. One of the major ones is bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or BPD, which the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute described as a condition in which the lungs are not fully formed and do not produce enough surfactant to keep from collapsing. To help keep them alive, doctors often deliver oxygen and surfactant replacement.

While the short-term prognosis for these children is good once they are treated, less is known about their long-term health. To investigate further, the authors of the new presentation conducted a study in which they looked at adults who were in their early 20s. They were divided into three groups: those who were born prematurely and had BPD, those who were preterm but did not have BPD and adults who were born from a full-term pregnancy.

Results showed that, following exercise, lung function tended to be more labored for adults born prematurely but without BPD.

"Surprisingly, the BPD subjects appear to have lungs that exhibit a normal response and accommodate the increased blood flow during exercise, suggesting a protective role of the oxygen treatments they received as infants," the researchers said in their presentation. "However, [subjects who were preterm births and did not have BPD or] receive the same level of oxygen treatment during their first few weeks of life appear to develop elevated blood pressure in their lungs during exercise as adults."

According to the NHLBI, symptoms of high blood pressure in the lungs include fatigue, chest pain and a rapid heartbeat. If the condition gets worse, patients may find it difficult to engage in physical activity. The authors of the new study want to conduct more research to find out if high blood pressure in the lungs following exercise makes it more likely the patients will develop full-blown pulmonary arterial hypertension.

In the meantime, adults who were born prematurely and experience these problems may want to consult a doctor who specializes in sports medicine. Such a professional can help decide what level of physical activity is appropriate.

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