AIM: To study health, quality of life, educational level and occupation in very low birth weight (VLBW) children in early adulthood and the relationship of the findings to neonatal risk factors and later handicap. METHODS: This is a prospective long-term follow-up study of a regional cohort of 20-year-old VLBW subjects (n = 77) of all surviving VLBW children (n = 86) and 69/86 term controls born in 1987-1988 in the south-east of Sweden. Postal questionnaires were used: 1. A study-specific form, 2. Medical Outcomes Study, Short Form (SF-36), 3. Sense of Coherence. RESULTS: VLBW subjects did not differ significantly from their controls in self-perceived health, use of tobacco, education, occupation and way of living, or scoring on SF-36 and Sense of Coherence. Sixteen had cerebral palsy, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or isolated mental retardation, and these subjects differed significantly from controls on SF-36 in physical functioning and physical health score, but not on Sense of Coherence. VLBW subjects were significantly lighter and shorter than their controls. Extremely low birth weight (ELBW), bronchopulmonary dysplasia and intraventricular haemorrhage were significantly associated with poorer scores on physical function. CONCLUSION: The 20-year old VLBW subjects reported perceived health and managed transition to adulthood similar to controls. Handicapped subjects had poorer self-perceived physical function. ELBW and severe neonatal complications were associated with poorer self-perceived physical health.