While COPD is a preventable and treatable disease, some people may be born at a disadvantage.
The progressive lung disease is primarily caused by smoking and/or exposure to air pollution, but a 2019 summary of existing studies, conducted by the University of Melbourne, concluded that babies born prematurely (less than 32 weeks' gestation) or with very low birthweight ( under 1501 g) are four times more likely to have breathing problems in early adulthood than those who were born with a normal birthweight (at least 2499 g). These babies are at risk of not reaching their full airway growth potential as teens and young adults, which suggests they may be more likely to have COPD in later adulthood.
Published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, the summary used data from 11 studies that involved a total of 935 participants, who were born very preterm or with very low birthweight, as well as 722 participants who were born at full term and with a normal birth weight. The summary only included studies that reported on air flow rates in participants older than 16 and younger than 33.
The analysis of previous studies was conducted by the University of Melbourne with help from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute and the Royal Women's Hospital, which are also based in Melbourne. Researchers collaborated with experts in Norway, Finland, the United Kingdom, and The Netherlands.
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As increasingly sophisticated methods of medical intervention make it more likely that babies will survive a premature birth, it is both easier and more important to study the long-term health effects on these babies as they reach young adulthood.
The summary also suggests that while many babies born preterm or with a very low birth weight are more likely to develop COPD in adulthood, babies who suffer from bronchopulmonary dysplasia are even more likely to develop COPD. Secondhand smoke and/or exposure to pollutants during childhood can also increase the odds of developing COPD.
Thus, perinatal history may increasingly be considered in the diagnosis of COPD and other breathing problems. While all children should be protected from the health risks associated with secondhand smoke or exposure to pollutants, it’s even more important for children born prematurely or with a low birthweight to minimize the health risk. Individuals who smoke and are also parents of premature or low-birthweight babies have even more reason to quit smoking.