Journal Article

Decline in the negative association between low birth weight and cognitive ability

Goisis, A., Özcan, B., Myrskylä, M.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114:1, 84-88 (2017)



Low birth weight predicts compromised cognitive ability. We used data from the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS), the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS), and the 2000–2002 Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) to analyze how this association has changed over time. Birth weight was divided into two categories, <2,500 g (low) and 2,500–4,500 g (normal) and verbal cognitive ability was measured at the age of 10 or 11 y. A range of maternal and family characteristics collected at or soon after the time of birth were considered. Linear regression was used to analyze the association between birth weight and cognitive ability in a baseline model and in a model that adjusted for family characteristics. The standardized difference (SD) in cognitive scores between low-birth-weight and normal-birth-weight children was large in the NCDS [−0.37 SD, 95% confidence interval (CI): −0.46, −0.27] and in the BCS (−0.34, 95% CI: −0.43, −0.25) cohorts, and it was more than halved for children born in the MCS cohort (−0.14, 95% CI: −0.22, −0.06). The adjustment for family characteristics did not explain the cross-cohort differences. The results show that the association between low birth weight and decreased cognitive ability has declined between the 1950s and 1970s birth cohorts and the 2000--2002 birth cohort, despite a higher proportion of the low-birth-weight babies having a very low birth weight (<1,500 g) in the more recent birth cohort. Advancements in obstetric and neonatal care may have attenuated the negative consequences associated with being born small.