The Life Project: Helen Pearson’s history of the UK’s birth cohort studies

22 February 2016

Author and journalist Helen Pearson tells the story of the UK birth cohort studies in her new book, The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives.

The studies, which follow people born in a single point in time throughout their lives, are tracking five generations of Britons, from the post-war baby boomers to the Millennials born at the turn of the century.

Over the course of 70 years, these studies have been a leading source of evidence on how our early lives continue to shape us as we grow up, and grow old.

“These studies are unique in science and unparalleled elsewhere in the world; no other country has anything like them on the same scale,” writes Pearson.

“This is the tale of these studies and the remarkable discoveries that have come from them. Touching almost every person in Britain today, they are one of our best-kept secrets.”

Pearson, a science journalist and Chief Features Editor for the international science journal Nature, focuses mainly on the contributions that the studies have made to the understanding of health and disease.

Smoking during pregnancy can have a lasting negative effect on children’s health. Breastfeeding has benefits for children’s cognitive development. Early signs of illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes appear long before a person falls ill.

But, as Pearson finds, the story of health cannot easily be separated from the wider story of inequality that the cohorts have mapped so well. For decades, the same message has come out loud and clear from nearly every academic discipline using the cohorts for their research: social origins still matter.

Being born into poverty or disadvantage can have lasting effects on health, education, employment and ageing. By tracking people from all walks of life, cohort studies have been able to identify the true scale of inequality within and across generations, and how far-reaching the effects of disadvantage can be.

“We have a very strong responsibility to give people who have no voice a voice through these findings,” Prof Alissa Goodman told the Sunday Times Magazine in their feature on the cohorts.

The UK is home to many longitudinal studies, following different groups of people, born in different regions, at different points in time. Pearson’s new book provides a history of five UK birth cohorts, including three run by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies:

The other two studies are following generations born in 1946 and 1991-92, and are managed at University College London and the University of Bristol respectively.

The book describes the “heroic” efforts of the scientists who dedicated their working lives to the studies, and the funders, including the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council, who continue to support them.

But the real heroes are, undoubtedly, the participants. More than 70,000 study participants and their families have been taking part in these studies since the beginning, each person making a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the whole.

In 70 years, the studies have experienced their own ups and downs, and the scientific methods guiding them have advanced dramatically. However, the overriding message of the book rings clear – these studies are one of the nation’s greatest treasures and the envy of scientists and societies worldwide.

Helen Pearson is a science journalist and Chief Features Editor for the international science journal Nature. She has written extensively on findings from the birth cohort studies. Her book, The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of Our Ordinary Lives, will be published by Penguin on 25 February.

Several researchers from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies gave interviews to Pearson as part of her research. The team at CLS was not involved in the writing or publishing of the book.

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