People who are born premature tend to be less wealthy as adults, and this may be due to lower mathematics abilities, a new study suggests.
The findings show that preterm birth is associated with lower academic abilities in childhood, and lower educational attainment and less wealth in adulthood.
“Together, these results suggest that the effects of prematurity via academic performance on wealth are long term, lasting into the fifth decade of life,” said Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the UK.
For the study the researchers examined data from two large, longitudinal studies which followed individuals born more than a decade apart – the UK National Child Development Study (1958) and the British Cohort Study (1970).
Both of the studies recruited all children born in a single week in UK and researchers have followed up these children through to adulthood.
Researchers specifically examined data for all individuals in the studies who were born at between 28 and 42 weeks gestational age and who had available wealth information at age 42, yielding a total sample of over 15,000 participants.
To measure adult wealth, the researchers looked at a combination of participants’ family income and social class, their housing and employment status, and their own perceptions of their financial situation.
To gauge participants’ academic abilities, they examined a combination of validated measures for mathematics, reading, and intelligence, combined with ratings from teachers and parents.
The researchers also accounted for several variables that might otherwise influence outcomes in childhood and adulthood, including birth weight, maternal prenatal health, and parental education and social class.
Children who were born preterm tended to have lower wealth at age 42 and lower educational qualifications in adulthood than those who were born full-term.
Individuals born preterm were more likely to be manual workers, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to report financial difficulties, and less likely to own a house than those who were born full-term, even after other potential factors were taken into account.
As predicted, preterm children also tended to demonstrate lower academic abilities in childhood, and for mathematics in particular.
“What is perhaps most surprising is that most of the children we studied were not very preterm – born, on average, only 5 weeks early – and still we find these long lasting effects,” said co-author Maartje Basten.
The rate of preterm births has increased in recent years, and data from children born in just the last decade indicate that preterm birth continues to be a risk factor for decreased cognitive functioning and lower academic achievement, researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.