Premature birth linked with less intelligence and less adult wealth, according to University of Warwick research

Professor says study is important to highlight 'the need for extra support at school for children who are born pre-term'

People who were born prematurely are less intelligent later on in life and earn less money as a result, according to a new study by the University of Warwick.

Researchers at the Coventry-based institution said they found a link which connects pre-term birth with low reading and, in particular, maths skills which affect the amount of wealth accumulated as adults.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the researchers examined data from two other large studies, following children born more than a decade apart, with one group from 1958 and the other from 1970.

In total, more than 15,000 individuals were surveyed – which recruited all children born in a single week in England, Scotland, and Wales. Data were examined for all individuals who were born at between 28 and 42 weeks gestational age, and who had available wealth information at the age of 42.

Those participants who were born pre-term – at less than 37 weeks – were compared with those who were born full-term to find both groups’ mathematical ability in childhood had a direct effect on how much they earned as an adult, regardless of later educational qualifications.

In order to measure adult wealth, the researchers looked at factors including: family income and social class, housing and employment status, and their own perceptions of their financial situation.

In regards to academic abilities, they examined: validated measures for mathematics, reading, and intelligence, along with ratings from teachers and parents.

From these variables, a number of inequalities in wealth and employment emerged from the 1970 cohort: 32.5 per cent of adults born pre-term were manual workers – compared with 25 per cent of those born full-term – and 3.3 per cent were unemployed when compared with 2.5 per cent born full-term.

Finally, 57.6 per cent versus 49.1 per cent had a below average family income, and similar figures were found to apply to the 1958 group too.

Birth weight, maternal prenatal health, and parental education and social class were the other variables taken into consideration throughout the study.

Despite most of the studied children being born, on average, only five weeks early, co-author of the study, Maartje Basten, said it was surprising to find long lasting effects were still evident.

The head of the research, Professor Dieter Wolke, highlighted the importance of the study because it could be used to flag up the need for extra support at school for children who are born pre-term.

Published in the Association of Psychological Science’s journal Psychological Science, he described how numerical ability is important for making financial decisions in adulthood. Previous studies, he said, have linked difficulty with maths to challenges managing personal finances – and even defaulting on mortgages.

He said: “Basic mathematical skills are increasingly important in modern jobs. Being able to identify cognitive problems early on could result in specialist, tailored education being developed to help prevent these children underachieving at school and later on as adults.”

On a global scale, 11 per cent of infants are born pre-term which amounts to around 15 million births each year – and this figure is rising. In 1990, for example, 7.2 per cent were born before 37 weeks compared with 2010 when the figure increased to 8.6 per cent.

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