According to a new study led by A.C. Burnett of the Department of Psychology at the University of Melbourne in Australia, children born prematurely and with low birth weights (LBW) are three-and-a-half times more likely to develop mental health problems such as depression and anxiety than normal birth weight (NBW) children. Children born prematurely are already at increased risk for physical health problems, learning disabilities, and other cognitive challenges. Some research has provided evidence that children who are born prematurely are at a higher risk for behavioral problems and even attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But until now, there has been little evidence suggesting that these children are also more vulnerable to mood disorders and mental health problems later in life.
In order to examine the relationship between LBW and mental health problems, Burnett analyzed previous studies and looked specifically at prematurity/LBW and how it influenced the development of anxiety and depression in adolescence and young adulthood. Burnett assessed data that was published between 1995 and 2010 and included individuals born prematurely with LBW, ranging in age from 10 to 25 years old. After review, Burnett discovered that children who were born prematurely and had LBW had a significantly higher risk than NBW peers, for the development of psychiatric problems later in life. In particular, the study revealed that the LBW participants were three times more likely to develop an anxiety or depressive disorder in adolescence or young adulthood than those who were born full-term.
The results of this study, the first of its kind, have significant clinical implications. Burnett believes that professionals treating the physical and cognitive impairments in LBW children should be aware of the negative psychological predisposition that these children possess, paying particular attention to mental health needs during adolescence and young adulthood. Burnett added, “The studies reviewed here indicate that, in addition to monitoring and management of medical and cognitive sequelae, the psychological well-being of formerly preterm individuals should be a key part of ongoing care in collaboration between clinicians, individuals and their families.”
Burnett, A. C., Anderson, P. J., Cheong J., Doyle, L. W., Davey, C. G., Wood, S. J. Prevalence of Psychiatric Diagnoses in Preterm and Full-term Children, Adolescents and Young Adults: A Meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine 41.12 (2011): 2463-474. Print.
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