BACKGROUND:

Very preterm (VP; gestational age <32 weeks) and very low birth weight (VLBW; <1500 g) births are related to impaired cognitive function across the life span. It is not known how stable cognitive functions are from childhood to adulthood for VP/VLBW compared with term-born individuals and how early adult cognitive function can be predicted.

METHODS:

The Bavarian Longitudinal Study is a prospective geographically defined cohort study that followed 260 VP/VLBW and 229 term-born individuals from birth to adulthood. Data on cognitive function were assessed with developmental and IQ tests at 5 and 20 months and at 4, 6, 8, and 26 years of age.

RESULTS:

Across all assessments, VP/VLBW individuals had significantly lower IQ scores than term-born controls, even when individuals with severe cognitive impairment (n = 69) were excluded. IQ scores were found to be more stable over time for VP/VLBW than term-born individuals, yet differences in stability disappeared when individuals with cognitive impairment were excluded. Adult IQ could be predicted with fair certainty (r > 0.50) from age 20 months onward for the whole VP/VLBW sample (n = 260) and from 6 years onward for term-born individuals (n = 229).

CONCLUSIONS:

VP/VLBW individuals more often suffer from cognitive problems across childhood into adulthood and these problems are relatively stable from early childhood onward. VP/VLBW children’s risk for cognitive problems can be reliably diagnosed at the age of 20 months. These findings provide strong support for the timing of cognitive follow-up at age 2 years to plan special support services for children with cognitive problems.

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