One in 10 people in the U.S. is born prematurely. Premature birth is known to be associated with pulmonary vascular disease in infants and children, and registry studies have found those born prematurely are three to five times more likely to develop pulmonary hypertension (PH) as adolescents or young adults. Less is known, however, about how premature birth affects pulmonary vascular health when people reach adulthood.

Kara N. Goss, M.D., and a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, a Pulmonary Hypertension Association accredited Center of Comprehensive Care, initiated research to investigate how preterm birth affects the pulmonary vasculature of individuals once they become adults. Eleven participants were recruited from the Newborn Lung Project — a group of infants born preterm with a very low birth weight — and 10 participants born at term during the same years (1988-1991) also were recruited from the general population. As adults, participants underwent pulmonary function and exercise testing, and right heart catheterization to assess their pulmonary vascular health.

The investigators found that young adults in the study who were born prematurely had higher than expected pulmonary artery pressures (PAP) than participants born at term. In fact, 18 percent of the participants born prematurely had PH with a mean PAP ≥ 25 mmHg; normal PAP is 8-20 mmHg. They also found that those born prematurely had a weaker cardiac response to exercise compared to those born full-term. The authors concluded that future studies should focus on how pulmonary vascular dysfunction develops in this high-risk group of individuals.