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PLoS One. 2019 Mar 13;14(3):e0212789. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0212789. eCollection 2019.

General cognitive but not mathematic abilities predict very preterm and healthy term born adults' wealth.

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Department of Child and Family Studies, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, United States of America.
Department of Psychology, University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom.
Neonatology, University Hospital Bonn, Bonn, Germany.
Division of Mental Health and Wellbeing, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, Coventry, United Kingdom.



Very preterm (<32 weeks gestation; VP) and/or very low birth weight (<1500g; VLBW) children often have cognitive and mathematic difficulties. It is unknown whether VP/VLBW children's frequent mathematic problems significantly add to the burden of negative life-course consequences over and above effects of more general cognitive deficits. Our aim was to determine whether negative consequences of VP/VLBW versus healthy term birth on adult wealth are mediated by mathematic abilities in childhood, or rather explained by more general cognitive abilities.


193 VP/VLBW and 217 healthy term comparison participants were studied prospectively from birth to adulthood as part of a geographically defined study in Bavaria (South Germany). Mathematic and general cognitive abilities were assessed at 8 years with standardized tests; wealth information was assessed at 26 years with a structured interview and summarized into a comprehensive index score. All scores were z-standardized.


At 8 years, VP/VLBW (n = 193, 52.3% male) had lower mathematic and general cognitive abilities than healthy term comparison children (n = 217, 47.0% male). At 26 years, VP/VLBW had accumulated significantly lower overall wealth than term born comparison adults (-0.57 (1.08) versus -0.01 (1.00), mean difference 0.56 [0.36-0.77], p < .001). Structural equation modeling confirmed that VP/VLBW birth (β = -.13, p = .022) and childhood IQ (β = .24, p < .001) both directly predicted adult wealth, but math did not (β = .05, p = .413). Analyses were controlled for small-for-gestational-age (SGA) birth, child sex, and family socioeconomic status.


This longitudinal study from birth to adulthood shows that VP/VLBW survivors' general cognitive rather than specific mathematic problems explain their diminished life-course success. These findings are important in order to design effective interventions at school age that reduce the burden of prematurity for those individuals who were born at highest neonatal risk.

Conflict of interest statement

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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