The Dunedin Study at 50: A Landmark Experience Followed 1,000 People From Birth | New Zealand

In 1972, a researcher in a small town in lower New Zealand set out to follow the development of more than 1,000 newborn babies and their health and behavior at the age of three, without realizing as over the next 50 years the research would grow into one of the most important longitudinal studies in the world.

The study didn’t stop at three years, but accelerated, tracking participants’ lives from birth to adulthood and creating a comprehensive dataset that has produced more than 1,300 research papers, peer-reviewed reports and books.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the multidisciplinary Dunedin Health and Development Research Study, more commonly known as the “Dunedin Study”. The study has some limitations from a national perspective – the cohort reflects the Dunedin of the 1970s, not the more ethnically diverse New Zealand of 2022 – but it captures a group of people who grew up in all kinds of households.

Founded by Dr. Phil A. Silva in 1972, and now under the direction of Professor Richie Poulton, the study continues with just under 1,000 members, who remain completely anonymous to everyone but the researchers, and who will have all 50 next year.

Every few years since the members were born, they have returned to the University of Otago Research Center in Dunedin from all over the world to spend a few days having their mental and physical health thoroughly examined. Everything from dental health to cardiovascular health, sexual behavior to relationships and lifestyle is covered.

The Associate Director of the Dunedin study, Professor Terrie Moffitt, with co-investigator Professor Avshalom Caspi of King’s College London. Photography: courtesy of The Dunedin Study

“It is extremely important that we recognize the real heroes of the study, who are the members of the study. They only do it for one main reason, which is that they think it might help other people,” says Poulton, who joined the team in 1985.

At this point, the study members were becoming teenagers, and the work led by Professor Terrie Moffitt would evolve into a paper on antisocial behavior in adolescents – a body of research that has become the most cited theory in criminology.

Speaking from his home in North Carolina, Moffitt says, “So many countries are using this 1993 document to justify reforming their juvenile justice system to be less punitive and more supportive of young offenders.

The data also helped show that child abuse can lead to consistently higher levels of body-wide inflammation and increased risk of depression, Poulton says. “Inflammation is a risk marker for all sorts of other physical illnesses.”

“Children exposed to negative psychosocial experiences have long-lasting emotional, immune, and metabolic abnormalities that help explain their elevated risk for age-related disease,” the article reads.

Over the years, the expertise needed by researchers to track new stages in the lives of their members also increased.

“When they were teenagers it was drugs and alcohol, risky sex and breaking the law – we had to become experts on it, but they eventually got out of it. Then we had to become experts in how they choose a mate, how they decide to have children, and when to have their first baby. Now that they’re turning 50, we’re studying how they’re preparing for old age,” says Moffitt, who is still an associate director.

Research will also orient itself to reflect changes in society – including exploring the thorny area of ​​social cohesion, or what keeps communities and societies holding together and why, around the world, they are unraveling.

“The best study of our type in the world”

“We thought, well, wait, we have a whole bunch of information on pretty much everything, but we don’t have a good measure of social cohesion yet,” Poulton said.

With this in mind, the team will now develop a method to understand what underlies socially cohesive behavior.

Thankfully, the last assessment was done in 2019 – just before the pandemic hit. But not wanting to miss an opportunity, the team reached out to members in 2021, asking them about their experience with the pandemic and their plans to get vaccinated, with that data to be released soon, Moffitt says.

There are three things that set the Dunedin study apart from longer studies abroad, says Poulton: a high retention rate (94% of the original cohort stayed), a multidisciplinary approach that brings together a incredible” information, and testing and interviewing people face-to-face rather than through questionnaires.

“It’s a very rare combo – the Holy Trinity in my mind – to make us the best study of our type in the world.”

About Chris Stevenson

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