Adults Born Premature Have Lung Limitations Similar to Patients With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Adults Born Premature Have Lung Limitations Similar to Patients With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

According to a recent study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, adults born very or extremely preterm have respiratory limitations to exercise similar to patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, similar to healthy elderly or casual smokers by the time they reach their early 20s.

The study, led by Andrew T. Lovering, a professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon, found that premature infants are at higher risk for contracting bronchopulmonary dysplasia, (BPD) a chronic respiratory disease that affects preterm infants who receive oxygen therapy. The higher the levels of oxygen, and also the increased pressure from the ventilator, higher the lung tissue scarring and other complications.

These infants have been found to be at increased risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive disease that affects breathing. COPD affects 329 million people worldwide and is often the result of exposure to air pollution or smoking.

In this new study, the researchers tested the hypothesis that adult survivors of preterm birth (≤32 wk gestational age) with (n = 20) and without BPD (n = 15) with reduced exercise capacity would demonstrate clinically important respiratory limitations at near-maximal exercise compared with full-term control subjects (n = 20).

Results indicated that adults survivors of preterm birth without BPD, like their counterparts with BPD, have symptoms of mild COPD in their mid-20s, as their lungs functioned less efficiently in comparison to the control group.

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“We were expecting more variation between the two preterm groups — with and without BPD,” Lovering said in a news release. “We didn’t anticipate that they would share a similar lung profile.”

As Lovering mentioned, even if the lung function decline rates remain normal throughout their life, adult preterm survivors with COPD are prone to developing respiratory complications at a much younger age, and also to develop fatigue and poor exercise capacity, resulting in reduced quality of life.

In terms of clinical management of these patients, Lovering mentioned that only some doctors usually ask about the neonatal period when treating their patients, so preterm adults often receive a misguided diagnosis of asthma.

“Additional research is needed to find better ways to serve adult survivors of preterm birth,” Lovering said. “We need to better understand how we can help them maximize their quality of life and lung health as they age.”


  1. Tonya says:

    Yes, my 27 year old son was born a preemie. 24-26 weeks, 2lbs. 2oz. 5 1/2 months nicu. He’s always had breathing issues, and it has always been treated like asthma. Even though on his best day he can not walk very far without shortness of breath.

  2. Tony says:

    I have copd. There is no other explanation except that I was born two months premature. I was in an incubator for 30 days I am told. I never smoked tobacco.

  3. Joyce says:

    I have two grown daughters (27 and 32 years old) born at 26 weeks and 32 weeks respectively who both exhibit these symptoms. Only found out because the older one went on an internet search to try to understand why she has such trouble climbing stairs or keeping up with others when they go hiking. Troubling, because I thought we’d seen the last of their problems with being born early. I hope there will be some medical help for them at some point.

  4. Barry Lucas says:

    I am a 40 year old 28 week premature twin. I have been battling moderate obstructive lung disease for many years. I am on multiple medications but still battle symptoms almost daily. My pulmonologists don’t know what else to do for me.

  5. Amanda Clarke says:

    I am a 32 year old former BPD patient, now termed as COPD. I am stable, no progression but no improvement. I too take multiple medications to manage but still have symptoms every day. I also have asthma on top of the COPD

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