Background: Accumulating evidence suggests that reduced duration of pregnancy predicts increased risk of asthma, but the studies published have been inconsistent.
Objective: We sought to synthesize the evidence on the relation between preterm delivery and the risk of asthma later in life and to assess differences between the studies as potential sources for heterogeneity of the results.
Methods: We conducted a MEDLINE search (until the end of May 2005). The outcome was asthma. The determinant of interest was preterm delivery defined as a gestational age of less than 37 weeks.
Results: We identified 19 articles that provided estimates for the meta-analysis. The summary effect estimates for asthma (fixed-effects odds ratio, 1.074 [95% CI, 1.072-1.075]; heterogeneity P = .000; random-effects odds ratio, 1.366 [95% CI, 1.303-1.432]) showed an increased risk in relation to preterm delivery, with substantial heterogeneity between study-specific estimates. The effect of preterm delivery on asthma was stronger in cross-sectional studies; studies with broad outcome criteria, a small sample size, and a younger study population; and studies conducted in English-speaking populations, outside Europe, and published more recently. In metaregression, adjusting for other determinants, the effect estimate was significantly associated only with the mean age of the study population.
Conclusions: The weight of evidence shows that preterm babies have an increased risk of asthma compared with term babies.
Clinical implications: Recognition of prematurity as a determinant of asthma emphasizes the importance of active treatment of physiologic airflow obstruction and a need for special preventive measures against known environmental determinants of asthma in preterm babies.