Happy Birthday: Britain's longest study

The UK's longest running study turned 70 this week, so what did we learn?
07 March 2016

Interview with 

Diana Kuh, University of College London & Tony Miles, study participant


Most scientific studies last for a matter of hours or days. But there's one very Birthday Cakeimportant medical study that is probably the longest running of them all and this week it celebrated its 70th birthday, along with the surviving study participants - all 3000 of them from around the UK. They've been sharing their health and lifestyle data, across their lifetimes, with a team of MRC scientists at University College London. Connie Orbach has been hearing what the study has achieved and began by dropping in on one of the study participants, Tony Miles who lives in Cambridgeshire...

Tony - One of the female participants had a boyfriend who became her fiance, I think, and she had a load of data from the survey ARRIVE and was answering the questionnaire and stuff like that.  And he approached her and said "why are you answering all these questions.  These are all nosy parker things" and threw everything in the bin.  But she thought, if he thinks like that he's not going to be the husband for me and ditched him, and thanks the study for not marrying the wrong bloke.

Connie - And she still thinks it's a good decision then?

Tony - Of course.

Connie - They've had wider reaching effects than maybe even they realised would happen. Relationships aside, this study has had some really important impacts since it was established in 1946, especially as it was the first ever one. Diana Khu, Director of the cohort study a.k.a. the MRC National Survey of Health & Development at UCL explains...

Diana - Britain really led the way - this was the first of the nation birth cohorts.  We're known around the world for these cohort studies and, over the years, there have been other countries who have also started off birth cohort studies in Europe, in America, and now in quite a few of the low income countries, and we learn a lot by comparing across these studies.  So you can see whether findings in one cohort are actually due to find the same. Can you replicate those because that's very important for policy, for the impact of the information if we can show that we find the same associations across these studies.

Connie - You explained how the very initial study fed into the foundation of the NHS, especially in maternity.  What are the other big findings over the years that's really affected our policy - the way that Britain works?

Diana - Well let me pick just two.  When they were children they did quite detailed cognitive tests so we knew when they were ageD eight, for example, how well they were doing cognitively. Then James Douglas followed them up - did they get through the 11 plus, did they go on to get educational qualifications, and such like.  And children who were, apparently, very cognitively able but came from poorer backgrounds had much less chance of benefiting from their cognition, if you like, in later life and getting into good jobs, or schools, or whatever, and that was called the register of talent.  It's really important that we invest in children in their health and education because they are the future generation. So a lot of the study findings went into commissions looking at policy reform for education in the 60s and 70s.

Now we're very interested in ageing and we can identify people who may be having an accelerated ageing process earlier.  People who may be more susceptible to certain types of ageing trajectories and I think we need to be making sure we get in early and not waiting until people already have a lot of chronic diseases, and problems, and functional decline.  I think that's the future and our information is being used to help.

Connie - This study has clearly had far-reaching consequences but it's not just about the way it's changed public policy; it has also dramatically impacted the lives of people taking part.  Here's Tony again...

Tony - The team are forever thankful.  The research scientists have so much data and they use everything they've discovered in a wide-ranging way.  We're a perfect group to see how well we've developed and now how well we are, and having them thank us all the time like that does make you think - Oh I'm glad I've done that; I'm glad I stayed in that study doing that.

Connie - Well happy birthday Tony and all the other participants - thank you all for your help.  And, as a birthday present, it seems that the latest results have some good news for later life.

Diana - In the same group of people we did a wellbeing scale in their early 60s and have just repeated it.  On average, people's wellbeing has been going up on all the different aspects that we ask about, and there is a group who we were particularly interested in who have actually had a significant increase in their wellbeing.  When we spoke about that at the 70th birthday party, two study members shouted from the audience "retirement!"


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