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Preterm birth rate in the US is rising, study finds, but the reasons are a mystery

The rate of preterm births in the United States has seen a 12% increase between 2014 and 2022, according to a recent report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. The rise, from 7.74% to 8.67%, poses potential health challenges for both infants and mothers.

The report highlighted a consistent increase in preterm births across age and race, with Black and Hispanic mothers exhibiting higher rates compared to their White counterparts. While older mothers generally have a higher likelihood of early delivery, the trend is noteworthy across various demographics.

Preterm births, occurring before 37 weeks of gestation, can lead to short-term health issues for infants, such as difficulties in infection resistance, breathing problems, and digestive issues. Premature babies often require extended hospital stays. In the long term, these infants may face health concerns like asthma, dental problems, hearing loss, stomach issues, and developmental delays.

The CDC study analyzed data from birth certificates recorded in the United States between 2014 and 2022. However, the report did not provide insights into the factors driving this trend. While doctors remain uncertain about the causes of preterm births, factors such as age, fertility treatments like IVF, and environmental influences like particle pollution are considered.

Dr. Kaitlyn Stanhope, an assistant professor at Emory University, suggested that the increasing trend could be related to people having children later in life and the growing popularity of IVF. However, these factors may not fully explain the observed rise.

Environmental factors, such as exposure to particle pollution, have been linked to increased preterm births. Psychosocial stressors, including chronic stress, anxiety, lack of support, unstable housing, and poor nutrition, are also recognized risk factors for early delivery.

The multifaceted nature of preterm births suggests a complex interplay of various factors. Dr. Ellie Ragsdale, a specialist in Maternal and Fetal Medicine, emphasized that the rising rates could be associated with the overall declining health of the population, including an increasing prevalence of obesity.

While Dr. Manisha Gandhi, chair of the Committee on Clinical Practice Guidelines-Obstetrics, does not attribute the trend to doctors inducing early births or a biological change in gestation length, she suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic may have influenced the rates. Studies have indicated that individuals infected with COVID-19 faced a higher risk of early delivery, and pandemic-related disruptions in healthcare may have contributed to the trend.

To address the increasing rates of preterm births, healthcare professionals recommend prioritizing health before pregnancy, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood pressure, and managing diabetes. Planning for pregnancy with optimal health may contribute to reducing the risk of early births.

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