NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 23, 2005

By age 6, four out of five children born prematurely experience some degree of disability. The disabilities ranged from physical impairments like cerebral palsy and hearing or vision loss to learning disabilities like attention deficit disorder and low IQs, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The researchers found:

  • At age six, 22 percent of extremely preterm children had severe disabilities, 24 percent had moderate, 34 percent had mild, and only 20 percent had no disability.
  • In cognitive testing, premature children scored 82 points vs. 106 points for full-term children.

Prematurity has risen by 14 percent from 1990 to 2002, a troubling spike that can be attributed in part to an increased use of fertility treatments and a higher rate of pregnancies in women older than 35. These factors are also linked to higher-risk twin or triplet pregnancies, say the researchers.

It might be reasonable to assume that medical advances mean the future of extremely preterm babies is getting brighter. Unfortunately, this doesn't appear to be the case, say the researchers:

  • According to a 1998 study, 86 percent of infants born between 26 and 28 weeks gestation survived in the early 1990s vs. 76 percent in the 1980s.
  • But the rate of serious impairment was steady: 36 percent for both periods.

Source: Neil Marlow et al., "Neurologic and Developmental Disability at Six Years of Age after Extremely Preterm Birth," Vol. 3529:9-19, No. 1, New England Journal of Medicine, January 6, 2005; and Suzanne Leigh, "When Preemies Reach "Miracle" Status, Painful Truth Becomes A Footnote," USA Today, February 2, 2005.

For NEJM Study (subscription required):

For USA Today text:


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