I.n 1972, researcher in a small town at the bottom of New Zealand decided to monitor the development of more than 1,000 newborns, as well as their health and behavior at the age of three, not realizing then that over the next 50 years the study will become one of the world’s most important longitudinal studies.

The study did not stop for three years, instead it gained momentum by tracking participants ’lives from birth to adulthood and creating a complete body of data that yielded more than 1,300 peer-reviewed scientific papers, reports and books.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the multidisciplinary Dunedin Health and Development Study, better known as the Dunedin Study. The study has some limitations internally – the cohort depicts Dunedin of the 1970s rather than New Zealand of 2022 with greater ethnic diversity – but it covers a group of people who grew up in a wide variety of families.

The study, founded by Dr. Phil A. Silva in 1972 and now led by Professor Richie Poltan, continues with just under 1,000 members who remain completely anonymous to all but the researchers, and all of them will turn 50 next year.

Every few years, since the participants were born, they returned to the Otaga University Research Center in Dunedin, arriving from around the world to spend a few days carefully examining their mental and physical health. Covers everything from teeth to the cardiovascular system, from sexual behavior to relationships and lifestyles.

Assistant Director of Dunedin Study Professor Terry Moffitt and co-researcher Professor Aushalam Caspi of King’s College London. Photo: courtesy of The Dunedin Study

“It is incredibly important that we recognize the real heroes of the study, who are the participants in the study. They only do it for one main reason: they think it can help other people, ”said Poulton, who joined the team in 1985.

At this stage, the study participants became adolescents, and the work led by Professor Terry Moffitt turned into an article on the antisocial behavior of adolescents – a volume 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 as an excuse to reform their juvenile justice system so that it is less punitive and more supportive of young offenders.”

The data also helped show that child abuse can lead to systematically higher levels of inflammation throughout the body and an increased risk of depression, Polton says. “Inflammation is a risk marker for all kinds of other physical ailments.”

“Children who are exposed to adverse psychosocial experiences have persistent emotional, immune, and metabolic disorders that contribute to explaining their increased risk of developing age-related diseases,” the article reads.

Over the years, the experience needed by researchers to keep up with new stages in the lives of their members has evolved.

“When they were teenagers, it was drugs, and alcohol, and risky sex, and breaking the law – we had to become experts in this, but then they grew out of it. We then had to become experts in how they choose a partner, how they decide to have children and when to give birth to their first child. Now that they are over 50, we are studying how they are preparing for old age, ”said Moffitt, who is still the deputy director.

Research will also shift to reflect changes in society, including deepening into a painful area of ​​social cohesion, or what compels communities and society to stick together, and why around the world they are stopping.

“The best study of our type in the world”

“We thought, well, wait, we have a whole bunch of information about everything, but we don’t have a good measure of social cohesion yet,” Polton says.

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

Fortunately, the last assessment was made in 2019 – just before the pandemic. But not wanting to miss the opportunity, the team contacted members in 2021 to interview them about their pandemic experiences and plans to get the vaccine, and those data should be released soon, Moffitt says.

There are three things that distinguish Dunedin’s study from longer studies abroad, Polton said: a high level of compliance (94% of the original cohort remained), an interdisciplinary approach that gathers “incredible” breadth of information, and testing and interviewing people face-to-face. rather than through questionnaires.

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

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