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Children exposed to opioids in the womb suffer cognitive delays for years

Children whose mothers used opioids while they were pregnant continue to show cognitive and motor skill effects from the drugs through adolescence, according to a new study. 

The opioid epidemic’s victims are not just the people who develop addictions, but their families and even, the new study suggests, generations after them.  

About every 15 minutes, a baby is born with opioid withdrawals, and opioid use among pregnant women is up five-fold in the US. 

And, according to new research from the Royal Hospital for Women in Australia, children who were exposed to opioids in the womb may have lower IQs and are at a three-fold higher risk for a severe intellectual disability. 

These brain effects of the drugs will follow them throughout life, likely limiting their financial and social success considerably. 

New research suggests that the effects of opioid exposure in the womb are long-term and devastating. Through elementary school, kids whose mothers took the drugs while carrying them face a three-fold higher risk of intellectual disability, the new study suggests 

Like other major epidemics, the opioid epidemic’s effects are proving systemic in the US. 

In 2017 alone, opioid overdoses claimed the lives of more than 70,000 Americans. 

Scientists blame the opioid epidemic for single-handedly pushing life expectancy in the US down for the last three years in a row – the first such down turn in 25 years. 

And we are only just beginning to understand the reach of its impact on the children of the epidemic. 

We know that in just 10 years, the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) increased by five-fold, hitting 32,000 babies born with the condition in 2014. 

Children born with NAS often have lower birth weights, are more prone to have poorly developed lungs and trouble breathing and may have smaller than average heads. 

We are still learning the long-term effects of NAS, although recent research suggests they may not perform as well in school. 

But even if their exposures don’t lead to NAS, the sensitive, developing brains and bodies of fetuses are likely sensitive to even light or moderate opioid use by their mothers. 

The new study estimates that at least one in five pregnant women in wealthy nations use some form of opioid while carrying a child. 

Some 75 to 90 percent of those babies will be born with NAS, but even more may be effected. 

With immediate, proper care, babies with NAS can make a recovery and be taken home relatively soon after birth, to live what seem like surfacely normal childhoods. 

However the researchers at Royal Hospital for Women had a hunch that the effects of opioid exposure would follow these children later in life – a subject that hasn’t yet received much attention. 

So, they pooled together data from previous studies to assess 1,455 children who were exposed to opioids in the womb plus 2,982 whose mothers did not take opioids during pregnancy. 

The data included cognitive scoring for children of a wide span of ages, including toddlers as young as 11 months to 18-year-olds. 

What they found was disheartening. 

Although clear differences tied to opioid exposure started to dissipate by age seven, the gap between exposed and unexposed children first widened from six months through elementary school. 

Overall, nearly three times more children who were exposed to opioids in the womb had IQs below the normal range. 

Among children whose mothers took the potent drugs, 6.3 percent lagged in intellectual scores, while just 2.3 percent of the general population of children did, according to the study, published in JAMA Network Open. 

That translates to a three-fold higher risk of intellectual disability.  

The spread of IQ scores, motor functions and cognitive abilities seemed to even out by the time children were older, but it still raised serious concerns for the Australian researchers. 

‘This difference is significant for children with POE as they are already vulnerable given their tenuous living circumstances and increased risk of neglect and abuse,’ wrote the study authors. 

Risks for intellectual disability may only amplify ‘their propensity to have behavioral and attention deficits, all of which contribute to poorer academic, social, and lifestyle outcomes,’ they added.