Background: Low birth weight in term-born individuals correlates with adverse cardiometabolic outcomes; excess glucocorticoid exposure has been linked to these relationships. We hypothesized that cortisol and adrenal androgens would correlate inversely with birthweight and directly with markers of cardiometabolic risk in school-aged children born extremely preterm; further, preterm-born would have increased cortisol and adrenal androgens compared to term-born children.
Methods: Saliva samples were obtained at age 6 from 219 preterm-born children followed since birth and 40 term-born children and analyzed for dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) and cortisol. Cortisol was also measured at home (awakening, 30′ later, evening).
Results: For preterm-born children, cortisol and DHEA correlated inversely with weight and length Z-scores at 36 weeks PMA and positively with systolic BP. DHEA was higher in preterm-born than term-born children (boys p < 0.01; girls p = 0.04). Cortisol was similar between preterm-born and term-born at study visit; however, preterm-born children showed a blunted morning cortisol. In term-born children, DHEA correlated with BMI (p = 0.04), subscapular, and abdominal skinfold thicknesses (both p < 0.01).
Conclusion: Cortisol and DHEA correlated inversely with early postnatal growth and directly with systolic BP in extremely preterm-born children, suggesting perinatal programming. Blunted morning cortisol may reflect NICU stress, as seen after other adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).