Background: Very-low-birth-weight infants (those weighing less than 1500 g) born during the initial years of neonatal intensive care have now reached young adulthood.
Methods: We compared a cohort of 242 survivors among very-low-birth-weight infants born between 1977 and 1979 (mean birth weight, 1179 g; mean gestational age at birth, 29.7 weeks) with 233 controls from the same population in Cleveland who had normal birth weights. We assessed the level of education, cognitive and academic achievement, and rates of chronic illness and risk-taking behavior at 20 years of age. Outcomes were adjusted for sex and sociodemographic status.
Results: Fewer very-low-birth-weight young adults than normal-birth-weight young adults had graduated from high school (74 percent vs. 83 percent, P=0.04). Very-low-birth-weight men, but not women, were significantly less likely than normal-birth-weight controls to be enrolled in postsecondary study (30 percent vs. 53 percent, P=0.002). Very-low-birth-weight participants had a lower mean IQ (87 vs. 92) and lower academic achievement scores (P<0.001 for both comparisons). They had higher rates of neurosensory impairments (10 percent vs. <1 percent, P<0.001) and subnormal height (10 percent vs. 5 percent, P=0.04). The very-low-birth-weight group reported less alcohol and drug use and had lower rates of pregnancy than normal-birth-weight controls; these differences persisted when comparisons were restricted to the participants without neurosensory impairment.
Conclusions: Educational disadvantage associated with very low birth weight persists into early adulthood.