By @SimonCocking. Review of the Life Project written by Helen Pearson Chief features editor for Nature magazine, published March 2016.

In March 1946, scientists began to track thousands of children born in one week. No one imagined this would become the longest-running study of human development in the world, growing to encompass five generations of children. Today, they are some of the best-studied people on the planet, and the simple act of observing human life has changed the way we are born, schooled, parent and die. 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. Available from Amazon here.

This book covers a topic that could become complex and off putting to the wider reader, concerning massive amounts of statistical data, however it is done in a way that is both readable and accessible. This is fortunate as the topic is actually both fascinating and vitally important to our lives, and the health and well being of our future generations too. In many ways the collection of data over seventy years and counting, and Pearson’s subsequent description of it is almost a labour of love. Except that massive amounts of funding have been needed regularly to maintain these long running and extensive cohort studies. This has been an ongoing challenge, even resulting in several lamented failures long the way, the ‘lost cohort’ of 1982 for example, and the struggles to raise a millennium cohort. Despite these setbacks the data gathered from ’46, ’58, and ’70 helped to establish the massive benefits of studies like these.

Many other countries have been inspired by the data gathered and the insights achieved, with varying degrees of success. Pearson details many of the challenges faced along the way, some of which are more easily managed now as it is possible to handle far larger data sets than was ever possible before. At the same time she also highlights some of the massive challenges to enable the interaction of the data from the different cohorts, due to issues like not exactly the same data types, accidental elimination of outlier data results (people over 6’6 were all rounded down for example). You can image the researchers pulling out their hair, some data was constricted by the recording apparatus of the time, rather than recording the actual results.

Despite these challenges the insights have been important and often life changing. The cohort studies helped to statistically identify the link between smoking in pregnant mothers and the impact on unborn babies. Many other important discoveries are also described in the book. The impact on class seems to remain a persistent predictor of future life expectancy, within certain parameters. This is a good example of how the funding of the studies were constantly affected by the ruling political parties of the time and their own particular agendas, always a challenge for the social sciences.

Moving forwards it is a tough task as more and more of the cohort die off, though this in itself will also continue to yield valuable insights about our health patterns. Already studies of mobility of people in their 50’s is proving to be an accurate indicator of their remaining life expectancy. The book is well written, accessible, and interesting to a wider audience than just data scientists.

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