Extremely preterm (EP; <28 weeks) birth and extremely low birth weight (ELBW; <1000 g) are risk factors for poor cognitive outcomes, including in executive function (EF; higher-order cognitive skills necessary for goal-directed, adaptive functioning and important for academic and behavioral-emotional outcomes). We aimed to (1) extend the limited data on EF in EP/ELBW survivors in adolescence compared with normal birth weight controls, and (2) determine changes in EF between ages 8 and 17 years in both groups.
Two hundred twenty-eight EP/ELBW and 166 control adolescents (mean age, 17 years) from a prospective geographical cohort were assessed with multiple EF tasks, and parent- and self-ratings of behavioral EF. The Rey Complex Figure and Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function parent report were also administered at age 8 years, enabling examination of change in scores between childhood and adolescence.
EP/ELBW adolescents performed more poorly than controls in verbal processing speed, attentional control, cognitive flexibility, and goal-setting (effect sizes, −0.7 to −0.2 SD), but not psychomotor reaction time. Group differences were of similar magnitude across tasks. From childhood to late adolescence, EP/ELBW children improved their accuracy of the Rey Complex Figure copy more than controls. According to parents, executive behaviors were largely stable over time in both groups.
Adolescents born EP/ELBW have poorer EF skills across multiple domains than controls. From childhood to late adolescence, different aspects of EF improved, but others did not, underscoring the need for multidomain, longitudinal assessments in this high-risk population.