Published Online: February 5, 1997

Health Update

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Study of Low-Birth-Weight Babies Finds Intervention Gains Fade

Special services for low-birth-weight babies can spur academic and cognitive development in the first three years of life, but those benefits tend to fade as a child gets older, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reports.

In the eight-year study from 1984-92, a team of researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City studied 336 children who weighed less than 5.5 pounds at birth and received home visits, child-development services, and had parents who attended educational meetings. The investigators compared those children with 538 low-birth-weight children of the same age who did not receive such services. Neither group had severe medical illnesses or neurological impairments.

The study, reported in the Jan. 7 issue of JAMA, found that while the differences were striking between the two groups at age 3, by age 8 the overall IQ scores, cognitive skills, and health condition were similar. By the time the children entered 3rd grade, the intervention group's earlier progress was barely detectable, the study says. There were no marked differences in the students' performance on tests, in whether they repeated grades, or in their use of special services.

The researchers, however, did find a modestly higher IQ score among the heaviest low-birth-weight babies in the study--those who weighed between 4.4 pounds and 5.5 pounds--when compared with the heaviest babies in the control group. The 8-year-old children who were heaviest at birth and had received the child-development services scored four points higher on the IQ test than their counterparts.

The findings raise questions about whether expensive early-childhood services are worth a modest boost in IQ scores, Dr. Cecelia M. McCarton, the lead researcher, said. The estimated annual cost of providing the services in the study was $15,146 per child. The findings underscore the importance of public health efforts to reduce premature births in the first place, Dr. McCarton said.

New Campaign To Curb Underage Drinking

Eleven diverse state and local organizations have been chosen to team up in a $10 million campaign to curb underage drinking. The American Medical Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are organizing and paying for the project.

The groups selected last month to participate in the coalition range from the Governors' Institute on Alcohol and Substance Abuse Inc. in Durham, N.C., to the Louisiana chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Each group will receive nearly $1 million over a four-year period from the Princeton, N.J.-based foundation to collaborate on national strategies to reduce the marketing, sales, and accessibility of alcohol to minors. The coalition will also work to educate young drivers, police, and judges about the dangers of alcohol abuse and create a corps of youth leaders to warn their peers about driving drunk.

Alcohol is a factor in at least one-third of all fatal car crashes--the leading cause of death among adolescents in the United States.

--JESSICA PORTNER jportner@epe.org

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