Most babies who win their battle against a life-threatening respiratory disorder can be expected to grow into normal, healthy adults with no major breathing problems, a new study shows.
Doctors at Vanderbilt University Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., looked at the lung function of 22 young adults who as premature infants were treated for hyaline membrane disease in the mid-1960s. President John F. Kennedy’s newborn son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, died of the disease in 1963.
The disorder, which occurs primarily in premature babies, is characterized by failure of the lungs to expand properly and a deficiency of the fat-protein mixture coating the lungs’ inner lining. It gets its name from a glassy membrane found in victims’ lungs.
Although many infants can be saved by therapy involving forced air flow and antibiotics, about 25,000 U.S. babies die of hyaline membrane disease each year.
Survival rates appear to hinge on a baby’s birth weight. Infants weighing 3 1/2 pounds have a 95% chance of survival, while those with weights just over a pound have only a 30% to 50% chance.
Of the 22 adult survivors of hyaline membrane disease, all but two showed normal pulmonary
function in a battery of tests, said Dr. James Sheller, who directed the Vanderbilt study.
“This confirms that most such infants are growing up with normal lungs,” Sheller said. “We were very gratified to see that.”
The survivors, who ranged in age from 18 to 22, also proved to be no more susceptible to asthma than members of a control group and did fairly well on exercise trials, he said.
The pulmonary medical specialist said that as the infants grew up, they were generally “looked after very carefully” when they contracted colds, bronchitis or other respiratory problems common in childhood. However, they received no special breathing exercises, he said.
Of the two patients found to have impaired pulmonary function, one smoked cigarettes and also suffered from recurring bouts of bronchitis. Sheller said that case may indicate some people who survive hyaline membrane disease may be more susceptible to environmental hazards like cigarette smoke and viral infections.
But most of the survivors, Sheller said, “could do pretty much what they wanted in terms of physical activity.” He said one of the young adults currently plays a wind instrument in a major symphony.
“I think the message is that children who survive hyaline membrane disease are going to turn out to be normal, and that really is very encouraging,” Sheller said.