It was a grey dawn on 13 August 2013 when a midwife in Watford General hospital told me that this was it. "Baby's heart rate is dropping, let's get this baby out fast," she said. "You've got to push." I'd been up all night, had fainted twice, wanted this hell over, and did what I was told.
Five minutes later, I felt a terrible stretching. My partner and the midwife were cheering. One more push and he was out. When they put my tiny son on my chest, I cried with relief that it was over. He was there and he was whole and he looked amazing.
This moment was also significant in another way. Not only was I incredibly grateful that my son had arrived healthily, safely and free of charge in an NHS hospital supported by modern medical care and with the pain – somewhat − soothed by powerful drugs, I had come to understand how extraordinarily fortunate I was to have this care, and why.
At that time, I was deep into researching a book about a remarkable series of scientific studies that have tracked generations of children growing up in Britain since the end of the war. The results fed into the foundation of the NHS, changed the way women give birth in Britain and established much of the advice given to expectant parents, as well as changing the way we are educated, parent our children and how we understand our employment, health, illness and death. These studies have touched the lives of almost everyone in Britain. Today, my son Edwin is an obstreperous two-and-a-half-year-old, and that book has changed the way I view myself, my family and my place in society.
Health news in pictures
Health news in pictures
1/19 Vaping backed as healthier nicotine alternative to cigarettes after latest study
Vaping has been given an emphatic thumbs up by health experts after the first long-term study of its effects in ex-smokers. After six months, people who switched from real to e-cigarettes had far fewer toxins and cancer-causing substances in their bodies than continual smokers, scientists found
2/19 Common method of cooking rice can leave traces of arsenic in food, scientists warn
Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking their rice incorrectly, scientists have warned. Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides
3/19 Contraceptive gel that creates ‘reversible vasectomy’ shown to be effective in monkeys
An injectable contraceptive gel that acts as a ‘reversible vasectomy’ is a step closer to being offered to men following successful trials on monkeys. Vasalgel is injected into the vas deferens, the small duct between the testicles and the urethra. It has so far been found to prevent 100 per cent of conceptions
4/19 Shift work and heavy lifting may reduce women’s fertility, study finds
Women who work at night or do irregular shifts may experience a decline in fertility, a new study has found. Shift and night workers had fewer eggs capable of developing into healthy embryos than those who work regular daytime hours, according to researchers at Harvard University
5/19 Breakfast cereals targeted at children contain 'steadily high' sugar levels since 1992 despite producer claims
A major pressure group has issued a fresh warning about perilously high amounts of sugar in breakfast cereals, specifically those designed for children, and has said that levels have barely been cut at all in the last two and a half decades
6/19 Fight against pancreatic cancer takes ‘monumental leap forward’
Scientists have made a “monumental leap forward” in the treatment of pancreatic cancer after discovering using two drugs together dramatically improved patients’ chances of living more than five years after diagnosis.
7/19 Japanese government tells people to stop overworking
The Japanese government has announced measures to limit the amount of overtime employees can do – in an attempt to stop people literally working themselves to death. A fifth of Japan’s workforce are at risk of death by overwork, known as karoshi, as they work more than 80 hours of overtime each month, according to a government survey.
8/19 Over-cooked potatoes and burnt toast ‘could cause cancer’
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has issued a public warning over the risks of acrylamide - a chemical compound that forms in some foods when they are cooked at high temperatures (above 120C).
9/19 Cervical cancer screening attendance hits 19 year low
Cervical screening tests are a vital method of preventing cancer through the detection and treatment of abnormalities in the cervix, but new research shows that the number of women using this service has dropped to a 19 year low.
10/19 High blood pressure may protect over 80s from dementia
The ConversationIt is well known that high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia, so the results of a new study from the University of California, Irvine, are quite surprising. The researchers found that people who developed high blood pressure between the ages of 80-89 are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia) over the next three years than people of the same age with normal blood pressure.
11/19 Most child antidepressants are ineffective and can lead to suicidal thoughts
The majority of antidepressants are ineffective and may be unsafe, for children and teenager with major depression, experts have warned. In what is the most comprehensive comparison of 14 commonly prescribed antidepressant drugs to date, researchers found that only one brand was more effective at relieving symptoms of depression than a placebo. Another popular drug, venlafaxine, was shown increase the risk users engaging in suicidal thoughts and attempts at suicide
12/19 'Universal cancer vaccine’ breakthrough claimed by experts
Scientists have taken a “very positive step” towards creating a universal vaccine against cancer that makes the body’s immune system attack tumours as if they were a virus, experts have said. Writing in Nature, an international team of researchers described how they had taken pieces of cancer’s genetic RNA code, put them into tiny nanoparticles of fat and then injected the mixture into the bloodstreams of three patients in the advanced stages of the disease. The patients' immune systems responded by producing "killer" T-cells designed to attack cancer. The vaccine was also found to be effective in fighting “aggressively growing” tumours in mice, according to researchers, who were led by Professor Ugur Sahin from Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany
13/19 Green tea could be used to treat brain issues caused by Down’s Syndrome
A compound found in green tea could improve the cognitive abilities of those with Down’s syndrome, a team of scientists has discovered. Researchers found epigallocatechin gallate – which is especially present in green tea but can also be found in white and black teas – combined with cognitive stimulation, improved visual memory and led to more adaptive behaviour. Dr Rafael de la Torre, who led the year-long clinical trial along with Dr Mara Dierrssen, said: “The results suggest that individuals who received treatment with the green tea compound, together with the cognitive stimulation protocol, had better scores in their cognitive capacities”
14/19 Taking antidepressants in pregnancy ‘could double the risk of autism in toddlers’
Taking antidepressants during pregnancy could almost double the risk of a child being diagnosed with autism in the first years of life, a major study of nearly 150,000 pregnancies has suggested. Researchers have found a link between women in the later stages of pregnancy who were prescribed one of the most common types of antidepressant drugs, and autism diagnosed in children under seven years of age
15/19 Warning over Calpol
Parents have been warned that giving children paracetamol-based medicines such as Calpol and Disprol too often could lead to serious health issues later in life. Leading paediatrician and professor of general paediatrics at University College London, Alastair Sutcliffe, said parents were overusing paracetamol to treat mild fevers. As a result, the risk of developing asthma, as well as kidney, heart and liver damage is heightened
16/19 Connections between brain cells destroyed in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease
Scientists have pinpointed how connections in the brain are destroyed in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, in a study which it is hoped will help in the development of treatments for the debilitating condition. At the early stages of the development of Alzheimer’s disease the synapses – which connect the neurons in the brain – are destroyed, according to researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia. The synapses are vital for brain function, particularly learning and forming memories
17/19 A prosthetic hand that lets people actually feel through
The technology lets paralysed people feel actual sensations when touching objects — including light taps on the mechanical finger — and could be a huge breakthrough for prosthetics, according to its makers. The tool was used to let a 28-year-old man who has been paralysed for more than a decade. While prosthetics have previously been able to be controlled directly from the brain, it is the first time that signals have been successfully sent the other way
18/19 Aspirin could help boost therapies that fight cancer
The latest therapies that fight cancer could work better when combined with aspirin, research has suggested. Scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in London say the anti-inflammatory pain killer suppresses a cancer molecule that allows tumours to evade the body’s immune defences. Laboratory tests have shown that skin, breast and bowel cancer cells often generate large amounts of this molecule, called prostaglandin E2 (PGE2). But Aspirin is one of a family of drugs that sends messages to the brain to block production of PGE2 and this means cancer cells can be attacked by the body’s natural defences
19/19 Potatoes reduce risk of stomach cancer
Scientists have found people who eat large amounts of white vegetables were a third less likely to contract stomach cancer. The study, undertaken by Chinese scientists at Zhejiang University, found eating cauliflower, potatoes and onions reduces the chance of contracting stomach cancer but that beer, spirits, salt and preserved foods increased a person’s risk of the cancer
The story of these extraordinary studies starts 70 years ago, when scientists decided to collect information on almost every baby born in one cold week in March 1946. It seemed crazily ambitious − but they pulled it off with post-war panache, by dispatching an army of health visitors to interview all mothers across the country. Were you able to get your full extra ration of a pint of milk a day, mothers were asked. Who looked after your husband while you were in bed with this baby? How much did you spend on vests, petticoats, bootees, bonnets, shawls and rubber sheets for baby? And how much did you spend on smocks, corsets, nightdresses, knickers and brassieres for yourself?
Scientists have been following several thousand of those children ever since, in what has become the longest-running major study of human development in the world. So successful was this effort to trace people through their lives – called a birth cohort study − that scientists also began to track groups of children born in 1958, 1970, the early 1990s and at the turn of the millennium. Altogether, these studies have enrolled more than 70,000 people across the five generations. They have become some of the best-studied people on the planet, and the amount of information collected on them is vast. Scientists have amassed mountains of questionnaires, terabytes of computer data, boxes stuffed with baby teeth, nail clippings, tufts of hair and umbilical cord slices. (They even collected 9,000 placentas, which are stored in buckets in a secure barn in Bristol.) The studies have produced more than 6,000 academic papers and fed into a slew of policies regarding pregnancy, birth, childcare, schooling, chronic disease, social mobility, adult education and much more. No other country in the world has a series of cradle-to-grave studies like this; they are considered a jewel in the crown of British science, the envy of researchers around the world, and have woven themselves quietly into our lives.
Yet, beyond the dedicated team of scientists who run them, few even know they exist.
I learnt that amazing things happen when you do something as simple as watching people live their lives. First, I came to realise how much mine and my children's lives had already been silently shaped by these studies. In the 1940s, results from the project shocked the nation by exposing the dismal conditions in which working-class women were giving birth – many more lower-class babies died than did those of the well-off. These results appeared just in time to shape maternity services in the fledgling NHS; when it started in 1948, the medical care associated with pregnancy and birth became free and more generous maternity allowances were introduced, laying the groundwork for the maternity care and benefits we receive today. The study also revealed how few women received pain relief at birth, and helped establish the right of women to receive it from that point on.
It may sound obvious now that we shouldn't smoke during pregnancy, but that wasn't widely accepted until a 1972 paper from one of the cohort studies showed definitively that smoking during pregnancy was linked to reduced birth weight and a higher risk of infant mortality.
When I avoided alcohol, ate fish during pregnancy, breastfed my children and put them to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, all of it was partly because results from the cohort studies have contributed to much of today's essential prenatal and postnatal advice.
Cohort studies also changed my approach to my kids. They have shown that relatively simple acts of parenting – reading to children every day, teaching them the alphabet and numbers, talking to them about what they are learning in school, expressing ambitions for their future − are all associated with improved academic achievement and other good outcomes in life. From all this, I came to think that what I was doing at home with my three boys was probably more important than moving into the catchment area for the perfect school. (On a practical level, we introduced "talking time" in the evening, when we would attempt to have a somewhat meaningful conversation with the children about their day.)
Of course, most of these things are just parenting common sense − but when you're battling with your children to put down the iPad and pick up a book, it really helps to have the scientific literature on your side. And importantly, I learnt that there are no guarantees of success: not every child who is read to will shine at school. And it's not like I have all the answers: there are plenty of evenings when I'm to be found screaming with frustration at the children, or wondering how my son's spelling can be that bad. But with the cohort studies behind me, at least I feel more confident that I'm trying to do the right thing.
It was hard to escape the horrible irony that I was learning from my book how important it was to spend time with my children, just as writing the book robbed me of any time to spend. But the cohorts helped me here, too, because they showed that I was far from alone. Just under half of women born in the first cohort study, in 1946, were working when they were 26, a number that had risen to more than three- quarters of women from the 1970 cohort, which is my generation. (I was born in 1973). But the cohort scientists have investigated whether children of working mothers suffer any adverse consequences – and generally find that they don't. I find this a source of immense relief.
Again and again, I found myself drawn to the cohort that most closely reflected my own life. The studies showed that this generation is having children later. (I had my last at 40.) In one recent survey it showed that more than half of them are often worried, 40 per cent are tired most of the time, and many drink more often than they should. I confess to all of these things. They also showed that nearly half of women are overweight or obese – far more than the previous generation. In this case, thankfully, I am not one. So the studies became an illuminating frame of reference in which to view my life – to understand how I fit into my generation and to sometimes find reassurance when I do not.
By the time I neared the end of writing my book, I had become convinced that birth cohort studies cast a potent spell. They hold the same fascination as watching your own children grow up: you just want to know how they'll turn out.
It is only because of the scientists' belief, commitment, stubbornness, charm and eccentricities that the studies have got this far. (One scientist threw one of the biggest birthday parties in the world for the cohort members at Alton Towers, and recruited Mrs Thatcher, Cliff Richard, Twiggy and 600 more of the country's great and good to a charity to help keep the studies funded.)
But my story came with an unexpected twist, because a recent effort to track a new generation recently failed. Last year, scientists launched the biggest, most ambitious study in the series, with the aim of recording the lives of 80,000 children born into the modern world. They wanted to explore a ream of pressing questions, such as the lifelong impacts on these children of exposure to pollution, rising income inequality, and whether children born by Caesarean section end up more at risk of allergies, as some now think.
But just a few months after it started, the government funding bodies announced that it would close. One problem was that women weren't signing up: today's busy women are a lot less willing to take part than those just after the war. The other is that these studies are now extremely complicated, expensive and bureaucratic to run. Scientists estimate – staggeringly − that a third of all babies born today will live to 100. It's difficult for politicians and science funders to agree to pay for a long-lasting, expensive study when it probably won't come to full fruition until they're dead. This opportunity to track my son's generation, and to compare it with previous ones, has been lost.
Back in August 2013, with my two-day-old baby asleep in the kitchen and my eyes slits from lack of sleep, the doorbell rang. It was a health visitor, there to find out how baby and I were doing. It struck me as a wonderful circle − just as all those mothers saw health visitors at the start of that very first survey, in 1946, I was, too. (Needless to say, the questions are different now. How was breastfeeding going? Was baby sleeping on his back? Was I doing my pelvic floor exercises?)
When she had gone, there was a spell of August quiet that comes when everyone is away on holiday. Once baby was asleep, I went back to writing my book. If I'd been asked by scientists if they could watch him grow up, I wouldn't have hesitated to say yes. Let's hope someone finds the cash and the determination to sign up a new generation of children to join the most extraordinary club in the world.
Helen Pearson is a journalist and editor for the science journal 'Nature' and the author of 'The Life Project: The Extraordinary Story of our Ordinary Lives' (£20, Allen Lane), out now
How the cohort studies have shaped our lives
In the 1960s, one cohort influentially revealed that bright, working-class children were less likely to pass the 11+ and enter grammar school than well-off ones, which helped sweep in comprehensive education.
Cohort studies revealed the surprising proportion of adults in Britain who struggled with reading and maths, inspiring a major adult-education programme in the early 2000s. One study showed that adult education was linked to better cognitive ability in later life.
As we age
Cohort studies are helping understand the ageing population. Middle-aged adults who struggled to grip strongly, stand up from a chair and balance on one leg had a higher mortality rate over the subsequent 13 years than those who could manage all three tests.Reuse content