Preterm birth linked with lower mathematics abilities and less wealth

People who are born premature tend to accumulate less wealth as adults, and a new study suggests that this may be due to lower mathematics abilities.

The findings, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, show that preterm birth is associated with lower academic abilities in childhood, and lower educational attainment and less wealth in adulthood.

For the study, which included Dr Samantha Johnson (pictured) from the Department of Health Sciences and was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the researchers examined data from two large, longitudinal studies: the National Child Development Study and the British Cohort Study. Both of the studies recruited all children born in a single week in England, Scotland, and Wales, and researchers have followed up these children through to adulthood.

Importantly, the studies follow individuals born more than a decade apart: the National Child Development Study follows children born in 1958 and the British Cohort Study follows children born in 1970.

The researchers specifically examined data for all individuals in the studies who were born at between 28 and 42 weeks gestational age and who had available wealth information at age 42, yielding a total sample of over 15,000 participants.

To measure adult wealth, the researchers looked at a combination of participants' family income and social class, their housing and employment status, and their own perceptions of their financial situation. To gauge participants' academic abilities, they examined a combination of validated measures for mathematics, reading, and intelligence, combined with ratings from teachers and parents.

The researchers also accounted for several variables that might otherwise influence outcomes in childhood and adulthood, including birth weight, maternal prenatal health, and parental education and social class.

The results were revealing: in both of the cohorts, children who were born preterm tended to have lower wealth at age 42 and lower educational qualifications in adulthood than those who were born full-term. Individuals born preterm were more likely to be manual workers, more likely to be unemployed, more likely to report financial difficulties, and less likely to own a house than those who were born full-term, even after other potential factors were taken into account.

Preterm children also tended to demonstrate lower academic abilities in childhood, and for mathematics in particular. The link between preterm birth and academic abilities in childhood helped to account for the link between preterm birth and wealth in adulthood.

Dr Johnson said: "This study shows how premature birth can affect some children's learning and educational attainment throughout childhood and adolescence, with effects still seen in adulthood. It is important that we find ways to improve premature children's attainment at school to try and maximise their life chances."