Preterm babies have a similar BMI at adolescence to peers born at term

Conditions and exposures in early life potentially play an important role in the development of cardiometabolic health, including body size. However, most previous research has focused on the impact of babies’ size at birth and not the gestational age at birth.

In a new study published in PLOS Medicine, a group of international researchers supported by the EU-funded LifeCycle and EUCAN-Connect projects examined the association of gestational age with body mass index (BMI) and overweight from infancy to adolescence.

They found that infants born preterm (less than 37 weeks) have a lower BMI and lower risk of overweight in infancy than babies born full term, and that this difference lessens with age. However, by adolescence BMI was similar for those born preterm to their peers born at term. In the four cohorts which contributed with data in adolescence, there was also an indication of an increased risk of overweight in late adolescence for individuals born preterm, particularly for those born very preterm (28-32 weeks).

One unique aspect of this study is the sample size. Data on more than 250,000 children from 16 cohorts across Europe, North America and Australasia were used.

In this landmark study, researchers were able to conduct an individual participant meta-analysis with data from 11 countries without physically sharing data. The authors used a cutting-edge infrastructure and methodology, DataSHIELD, that enables secure handling of data across international borders. The study is a blueprint of such federated analysis within this scale.

Lead author Johan Vinther says:

“This large collaborative study of more than 250,000 mother-child dyads enabled us to investigate the wide range of gestational age by degree of preterm births, and the association with body size measures across six age-bands, after birth through adolescence. A key and unique aspect of the research is the use of DataSHIELD with this publication demonstrating the future potential of using federated analyses for combining individual-level data from multiple sources in a research setting.”

Author and LongITools Project Coordinator Sylvain Sebert says:

“This publication is a milestone paving the way to federated analysis in exposome research. Many of the researchers involved in the LifeCycle and EUCAN-Connect projects are also involved in LongITools and ATHLETE projects where we are beginning our research using the DataSHIELD infrastructure. This is a very exciting time for researchers using cohort data across the globe.”

The paper “Gestational age at birth and body size from infancy through adolescence: An individual participant data meta-analysis on 253,810 singletons in 16 birth cohort studies” was published in PLOS Medicine in January 2023.

To read more about the use of data in the LongITools project, read our blog “Simplifying access to multiple research data sets“.