Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why premature birth shouldn't be iatrogenic

I'm delighted to get my hands on an article about a study done by a nurse. Prof. Sullivan, RN and her team say, "Effects of premature birth can reach into adulthood."

Do you know why this is, logically, a candidate for the Department of the Blitheringly Obvious?

It has to do with fetal development. In a healthy pregnancy (that is, most of them), labor starts when the fetus's lungs -- the last thing to finish developing -- are done. Then the fetus signals the mother's body, and labor begins.

The neurological system and heart are getting the finishing touches in those last few weeks, too. The final stages of fetal development are extremely important, and ever more so as it gets harder and costlier to get care in this country.

Why does getting care matter? Aren't preemies a lot easier to deliver?

They pop out faster, yes. They also tend to need time in the neonatal ICU.

But wait, there's more.

This article goes on to say that premature babies tend to have lifelong problems with -- you guessed it -- heart, lungs, and neurology. Neurological issues that consistently show up relate to coordination; learning (especially math); memory; and, most worryingly, hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis problems -- which messes up the body's ability to regulate weight, growth, anxiety, sleep, and mood; it's a major factor in CRPS, MS, and other constitutional illnesses.

These people are far more likely to require extra care and attention from parents, school, doctors, nurses, and therapists of both body and mind, _throughout_their_lives_ -- or at least, as Prof. Sullivan has shown, to the age of 21. More data to follow, as the study continues.

This is why I find "elective c-sections", which are often done at 37 weeks just to avoid the final stage of pregnancy, so appalling. They combine the drawbacks and long-term effects of prematurity with those of nonvaginal delivery and abdominal surgery. A full house, you might say.

Back to this article, which focuses on people who were born 21 years ago, when prematurity was not optional.

She states that these personalities tend to be more driven and success-oriented. On the one hand, that could be the cortisol talking (remember the lack of regulation? These people have higher than normal cortisol levels.) On the other, these are all people who have had a higher than average level of care, attention and structure in their young lives, and that tends to produce these characteristics anyway. When young people internalize the message that there are a lot of capable adults who really care what happens to them, they don't see failure as anything but learning how not to do it next time. And that's a setup for success.

Having explicated her stated finding, I have to say that she did not, nor did I read anything here about how she measured these personality characteristics. In short, it's possible she was looking for ways to make everyone feel better about the learning disabilities and systemic issues.

And that, frankly, is one of the common characteristics of nurse studies that tend to lessen the respect they otherwise deserve: nurses who achieve worldly success don't get there without being good at making decision-makers feel good.

I looked for the text of the study at her site, but no luck. I'll look on PubMed once I'm off this handheld. I'd like to clear up that last gratuitous silliness, if I can.

* Can't find it on PubMed. It was published very recently, so it might be worth checking back.

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