Three decades later, 'preemies' still a part of McMaster study

For premature babies, the struggles start at day one. If born in the 1970s and 80s, extremely premature birth was a matter of life and death. A new study from McMaster University followed 100 of these babies into their thirties.

The longest and oldest study of its kind, studying the long term health of premature babies

A study from McMaster University is the largest and longest of it's kind, studying premature babies into their 30s. (Mike Spencer/The Star-News via AP)

For premature babies, the struggles start at birth.

McMaster University has been following the lives of 100 preemies born in its neo-natal unit for 30 years to track what those early struggles mean as they grow into adulthood.

The latest of a series of findings was released this week. The long-term tracking study is the largest and oldest of it's kind in the world, and is "really quite remarkable." said Katherine Morrison. 

Years in the making

Morrison, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at McMaster and co-Director of the Metabolism and Obesity  Research program.
Katherine Morrison, an Associate Professor at McMaster, says a study of this kind is 'remarkable'. (Jon Evans Photography )

She took over as lead researcher on the study from Dr. Saroj Saigal, who started following the health of extreme preemies between 1977 and 1982.

It was then that 'preemies' were only just starting to be treated.

"The introduction of modern neonatology back in the late 70s and early 80s changed our ability to intubate and oxygenate these babies, and learn how to help them when they were born so early," said Morrison.

Starting with 140 babies born in the region, three decades later, 100 of those individuals have stayed in touch with the researchers, and continued to report back on their health from as far away as Asia and Europe.

"As a person who's come late to this, the commitment of these people to continue to be monitored throughout their lives has been truly remarkable," she said.

"It's a commitment to the work and to the kids that are being born prematurely thirty years later."

And still the vast majority will continue to be part of this research for the years to come.

The latest finding of the study shows that by their early 30s, babies born weighing less than a kilogram are four times more likely to develop abnormal blood glucose than their peers.

Throughout the years many aspects of these individuals lives have been studied, including social status, relationships and mental health.

Some of the findings showed surprising figures for the futures of prematurely born babies, including less likelihood of being employed versus control subjects, or more likelihood of being single or abstinent.

Perhaps even more surprising is that ​they made an average of $20,000 less in personal income compared to the control subjects.

While the study of blood glucose leads researchers to more questions than it does answers, it's a landmark study and a once in a lifetime opportunity for Morrison.

"I truly find it absolutely remarkable," she said. "It has been a real pleasure and honour, to be able to work with them."

Starting from scratch

Morrison is starting over again this fall. The hospital has funding to build a new study cohort from babies being born at the Hamilton Health Sciences center in the prenatal diagnosis clinic over the coming years.

"We have a couple of studies in newborns, to try and tease apart some of those mechanisms" that can cause health issues, she said.

We are learning how that early start in life impacts them throughout their lives-Katherine Morrison

"Those studies are just getting started, and we're looking forward to starting another cohort in the fall."

Following individuals from birth throughout life is challenging, but the payoff has affirming results.

"We are learning how that early start in life impacts them throughout their lives," said Morrison.