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Published On Sep 20, 2014

Clinical Research

Going the Distance

Longitudinal studies have provided both puzzles and insights about human health and well being.

The ongoing Harvard Study, begun in 1939, is known for its extraordinary longevity. But other influential longitudinal studies have also made major contributions to science by accumulating exhaustive data about their participants.

The Terman Study (1921- present) followed 1,528 California children from the age of 12 through old age. To be included, the kids had to have IQs of at least 135, putting them in the top 1% of the overall population. The study found that children who were the most cheerful had shorter lives, perhaps because they took too many risks. Conscientious kids grew up to live long lives and self-esteem didn’t factor into longevity.

The Berkeley Growth Study (1928-1982) sampled 250 infants born in the Berkeley, Calif., area to study their biological and social maturation as children. The study later expanded to examine the participants’ entire lives. A parallel study of adolescents, the Oakland (Calif.) Growth Study, focused on how the teen years shaped characteristics in middle age. The study’s data contributed to well-known child-rearing theories—authoritarian vs. authoritative or permissive—and showed that someone’s behavior and outlook on life were anything but static.

Framingham Heart Study (1948-present) started with 5,209 men and women from Framingham, Mass., and sought to identify characteristics that contribute to cardiovascular disease. The study, which now includes third-generation participants, has generated more than 1,200 articles in medical journals and these days is examining the genetic factors underlying cardiovascular and other diseases.

The Nurses’ Health Study at the Harvard School of Public Health (1976-present) includes 238,000 nurse participants. Cancer prevention is the study’s main thrust, but it has produced many findings on other diseases and on the influence of lifestyle on health.

Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (1957-present) randomly selected 10,317 men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and followed them through their lives, studying their relationships, how they functioned in their families and their physical and mental health.  The study is known for its examination of youthful aspiration and achievement and how those affect career choices. The study also served as a model for several federal longitudinal studies. 

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