"Long before it's in the papers"
July 27, 2015


Premature birth could lead to problems in adulthood

July 27, 2015
Courtesy of the British Medical Journal
and World Science staff

Ba­bies born very prem­a­turely or se­verely un­der­weight are at height­ened risk of be­com­ing so­cially with­drawn, neu­rot­ic and risk-averse adults, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

This per­son­al­ity pro­file might help ex­plain the more fre­quent ca­reer and rela­t­ion­ship dif­fi­cul­ties this group suf­fers, the re­search­ers sug­gest.

Ev­i­dence shows that many adults born very prem­a­ture/low birth weight are less likely to go on to high­er educa­t­ion or get well paid jobs; they also find it harder to make friends, find long-term part­ners, and be­come a par­ent, the re­search­ers note.

Very prem­a­ture birth at less than 32 weeks and/or birth­weight of less than 1,500 grams (53 ounces) are known to be linked to a height­ened risk of au­tis­tic-spec­trum be­hav­iors, they added. But it has­n’t been clear if these con­di­tions might af­fect oth­er adult per­son­al­ity traits.

The re­search, whose work is pub­lished on­line in the jour­nal Ar­chives of Dis­ease in Child­hood (Fe­tal & Ne­o­na­tal Edi­tion), com­pared the per­son­al­ity traits of 200 twenty-six-year olds who had been born very prem­a­turely and/or se­verely un­der­weight with those of 197 young peo­ple with­out these dif­fi­cul­ties at birth.

Par­ti­ci­pants were ei­ther part of the Ba­var­i­an Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study, which has been track­ing the health and well-be­ing of chil­dren born in 1985-6 in South­ern Ba­var­ia, Germany, and ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal with­in 10 days of birth, or those born at term in the same matern­ity un­its over the same time­frame.

Per­son­al­ity traits were as­sessed at the age of 26 across five as­pects: intro­version; neu­rot­icism (tense­ness and anx­i­ety); lev­els of open­ness to new ex­pe­ri­ences; agree­a­ble­ness; and con­sci­en­tious­ness.

The very prem­a­ture and/or se­verely un­der­weight group scored sig­nif­i­cantly high­er on all but two of the per­son­al­ity traits—con­sci­en­tious­ness and open­ness—than their peers, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said. Tak­ing ac­count of oth­er po­ten­tially in­flu­en­tial risk fac­tors did­n’t change these dif­fer­ences.

The first group al­so re­ported sig­nif­i­cantly high­er lev­els of au­tis­tic spec­trum be­hav­iors, intro­version, neu­rot­icism, agree­a­ble­ness and low­er lev­els of risk tak­ing.

This clus­ter of traits marks a “so­cially with­drawn per­son­al­ity,” or some­one who is easily wor­ried, less so­cially en­gaged, less in­ter­est­ed in risk tak­ing, and less com­mu­nica­tive, say the re­search­ers.

“The high­er scores of [very prem­a­ture/low birth weight] adults on the so­cially with­drawn scale are most likely to be the re­sult of al­tera­t­ions in their brain struc­ture and func­tion­ing due to the amal­gam of changes in brain de­vel­op­ment re­lat­ed to prem­a­ture birth” and sur­round­ing events, the re­search­ers wrote.

They added that these chil­dren are probably ex­posed to con­si­der­able stres­sors in ne­o­na­tal in­ten­sive care. Fur­ther­more, early birth may prompt par­ents to be overprotective.

* * *

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Babies born very prematurely or severely underweight are at heightened risk of becoming socially withdrawn, neurotic and risk-averse as adults, according to new research. This personality profile might help explain the more frequent career and relationship difficulties this group suffers, the researchers suggest. Evidence shows that many adults born very premature/low birthweight are less likely to go on to higher education or get well paid jobs; and they find it harder to make friends, find long term partners, and become a parent, the researchers note. Very premature birth at less than 32 weeks and/or birthweight of less than 1,500 grams (53 ounces) are known to be linked to a heightened risk of autistic-spectrum behaviors, they added. But it hasn’t been clear if these conditions might affect other adult personality traits. The research, whose work is published online in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood (Fetal & Neonatal Edition), compared the personality traits of 200 twenty-six-year olds who had been born very prematurely and/or severely underweight with those of 197 young people without these difficulties at birth. Participants were either part of the Bavarian Longitudinal Study, which has been tracking the health and well-being of children born in 1985-6 in Southern Bavaria, Germany, and admitted to hospital within 10 days of birth, or those born at term in the same maternity units over the same timeframe. Personality traits were assessed at the age of 26 across five aspects: introversion; neuroticism (tenseness and anxiety); levels of openness to new experiences; agreeableness; and conscientiousness. The very premature and/or severely underweight group scored significantly higher on all but two of the personality traits—conscientiousness and openness—than their peers, the investigators said. Taking account of other potentially influential risk factors didn’t change these differences. The first group also reported significantly higher levels of autistic spectrum behaviors, introversion, neuroticism, agreeableness and lower levels of risk taking. This cluster of traits marks a “socially withdrawn personality,” or someone who is easily worried, less socially engaged, less interested in risk taking, and less communicative, say the researchers. “The higher scores of [very premature/low birthweight] adults on the socially withdrawn scale are most likely to be the result of alterations in their brain structure and functioning due to the amalgam of changes in brain development related to premature birth” and surrounding events, the researchers wrote. They added that these children are probably exposed to considerable stressors in neonatal intensive care. Furthermore, early birth may prompt parents to be overprotective.