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Respiratory Issues Linger for Smallest Babies

Problems related to low birth weight continue into adulthood, study shows

THURSDAY, July 9 (HealthDay News) -- Respiratory problems experienced by low birth weight infants can persist into adulthood, U.S. researchers report.

Young adults with a history of low birth weight (less than 5.5 pounds at birth) have an increased risk of hospitalization for respiratory illness, they found.

"Our findings suggest that not only are [low birth weight] survivors at increased risk for long-term respiratory disorders, but that these disorders are clinically significant and associated with increased health care utilization," wrote lead researcher Dr. Eric C. Walter, of the pulmonary and critical care division at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Walter and his colleagues analyzed data on adults aged 18 and older who were hospitalized with respiratory problems in Washington between Jan. 1, 1998, and Dec. 31, 2007. They compared that information with the patients' birth weights.

The researchers found that people with very low birth weight (less than 3.3 pounds) or moderately low birth weight (3.3 to 5.5 pounds) had an 83 and 34 percent increased risk of hospitalization, respectively, for respiratory illness. Those with a very low birth weight had twice the risk of being hospitalized for asthma or respiratory infection and an even greater risk of respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation.

"In our study the percentage of respiratory disease attributable to moderately or very low birth weight was estimated to be 1.8 percent. If this were extrapolated to the 1.2 million U.S. hospitalizations for respiratory illness per year for ages 18 to 44, low birth weight may account for over 22,000 adult hospitalizations per year, with charges in excess of $225 million per year," Walter said.

The study will appear in the July 15 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

The findings hint at a looming public health issue. Since the mid-1980s, the rate of low and very low birth weight births in the United States has increased by more than 20 percent. In 2005, there were 330,000 low and very low birth weight births in the United States.

More information

The March of Dimes has more about low birth weight.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: American Thoracic Society, news release, July 2009

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