- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

Very small premature babies born in the late 1970s turned out less intelligent than other youngsters their age, a study found. But to researchers' surprise, they got into less trouble as teens, perhaps because they had doting parents.
As expected, the preemies in the study had learning difficulties and persistent neurological problems while growing up. But they also reported significantly less risky behavior as young adults than a comparison group.
Differences between the groups were found when it came to the use of alcohol, marijuana and other illegal drugs; conviction of a crime or other contact with police; and, for girls, having sex and getting pregnant by age 20.
"That was totally unexpected, because there's a lot of literature that criminality is related to lower IQ," said Dr. Maureen Hack, who led the study as director of the neonatal follow-up program at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland. She said the researchers thought the preemies would have had more behavior problems.
She said one possible explanation is that the preemies' parents saw their children as particularly precious and watched over them more.
Dr. Henry Shapiro, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on developmental pediatrics, said there is no evidence that the hypothesis is correct.
But he said the study could help policy-makers better plan for the medical and educational needs of premature babies.
Infants of very low birth weight, 3.3 pounds or less, account for 1 percent of all U.S. births, or about 40,000 babies per year. The babies in the study were born at 29 weeks and just over 21/2 pounds on average.
They were born between 1977 and 1979, before neonatal intensive care units and specialized technology were widely used to keep tiny preemies alive. Today, lung treatments, breathing machines, intravenous feeding and other technology enable some preemies as small as a pound to survive, though with significant disabilities.
Dr. Hack said her findings would probably apply to many of today's premature infants.
Past research on premature babies found higher rates of learning disabilities such as attention deficit disorder and of neurological problems such as cerebral palsy, blindness and deafness.
Earlier studies generally followed children until school age. This study followed the preemies until age 20 and examined their physical growth, behavior and mental health as well as intelligence.
The research was reported in yesterday's New England Journal of Medicine. It was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The researchers examined 242 Cleveland-area preemies at age 8 and again at 20, through IQ tests, neurological examinations and questionnaires completed by both the children and their parents. The preemies were compared with 233 area children with normal birth weights.

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