People who were born prematurely may have smaller-than-normal airways in adulthood, which can cause respiratory problems, researchers say.

Premature birth is associated with poorer heart and lung function, but the reasons why have not been fully understood.

In a new study, investigators compared adults who were born eight weeks or more early with people who were born at full-term. Both groups were the same age and height.

The researchers used lung function tests to calculate the airway size of each study participant, and concluded that airway size in the premature group was smaller than in the full-term group.

“Our study might suggest that respiratory treatments would be less effective in individuals born prematurely, but more work needs to be done to directly test this,” said study author Joseph Duke. He’s an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University.

Duke added a note of caution. “Our work used only an estimate of airway size and future research should use precise measurements to try and obtain an actual airway size, rather than an estimate,” he said in a news release from the Physiological Society.

The study could not prove a cause-and-effect relationship. But, ultimately, the findings may help improve treatment of respiratory problems in people who were born prematurely, according to the researchers.

The report was published online Nov. 29 in the journal Experimental Physiology.

More information

The American Academy of Pediatrics outlines the health issues of premature babies.

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