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Researchers analyzed data from more than 3 million people born in Sweden between 1973 and 2008. Those born at less than 37 weeks' gestation were divided into two groups: preemies born between 1973 and 1986, and preemies born between 1987 and 2008.
In 1986, Sweden introduced a national screening program for the eye condition known as "retinopathy of prematurity." This condition causes abnormal blood vessels to grow in the retina -- the back of the eye -- and can cause retinal detachment, according to background information in a news release from the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Compared with babies born at full-term, people born extremely prematurely (less than 28 weeks of gestation) between 1973 and 1986 had a 19-fold increased risk of retinal detachment, while those born extremely prematurely between 1987 and 2008 had a ninefold increased risk, the investigators found.
Meanwhile, those born very prematurely (28 to 31 weeks of gestation) between 1973 and 1986 had a fourfold increased risk and those born very prematurely between 1987 and 2008 had a threefold greater risk than those born at term.
Moderately premature birth (32 to 36 weeks of gestation) was not associated with an increased risk of retinal detachment, according to the study in the November issue of the journal Ophthalmology.
"We may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg of late [eye] complications after preterm birth," lead researcher Dr. Anna-Karin Edstedt Bonamy, a pediatrician at Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said in an academy news release.
"Not only does the risk of retinal detachment increase with age, but there has also been an increase in survival among people born prematurely since the 1970s. This provides opportunities for future research to address if the increased risk persists among those born prematurely as they age," she added.
The findings show the need for eye care follow-up of children and adults who were born extremely or very prematurely, the researchers said.
Although the study found a higher risk for future retinal detachment in very premature infants, it did not prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
With more than a half a million premature babies born each year, the United States has the sixth largest number of premature births worldwide, according to the news release.
-- Robert Preidt
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