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
1/22 New online test predicts skin cancer risk
Health experts have created a new online tool which can predict a person’s risk of developing a common form of skin cancer. The tool uses the results of a 10-question-quiz to estimate the chance of a person aged 40 or over of having non-melanoma skin cancers within three years. Factors including the age, gender, smoking status, skin colour, tanning ability, freckling tendency, and other aspects of medical history are covered by the quiz
2/22 Multiple Sclerosis stem cell treatment 'helps patients walk again'
A new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS) has enabled some patients to walk again by “rebooting” their immune systems. As part of a clinical trial at Sheffield's Royal Hallamshire Hospital involving around 20 patients, scientists used stem cells to carry out a bone marrow transplant. The method known as an autologous haematopoietic stem cell transplant (HSCT) works by using chemotherapy to destroy the area of the immune system which causes MS
3/22 Dementia patients left without painkillers and handcuffed to bed
Dementia patients experience a ‘shocking’ variation in the quality of hospital care they receive across England, a charity has warned. Staff using excessive force and not giving dementia patients the correct pain medication were among the findings outlined in a new report by The Alzheimer’s Society, to coincide with the launch of Fix Dementia Care campaign
4/22 Cancer risk 'increased' by drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer per day
Drinking more than one glass of wine or pint of beer a day increases the risk of developing cancer, according to medical experts. New guidelines for alcohol consumption by the UK published by chief medical officers warn that drinking any level of alcohol has been linked to a range of different cancers. The evidence from the Committee on Carcinogenicity (COC) overturns the oft-held view that a glass of red wine can have significant medical benefits for both men and women
5/22 Vaping 'no better' than smoking regular cigarettes
Vaping could be “no better” than smoking regular cigarettes and may be linked to cancer, scientists have found. The study which showed that vapour from e-cigarettes can damage or kill human cells was publsihed as the devices are to be rolled out by UK public health officials as an aid to quit smoking from 2016. An estimated 2.6 million people in the UK currently use e-cigarettes
6/22 Rat-bite fever
A teenager was hospitalised and left unable to move after she developed the rare rat-bite fever disease from her pet rodents which lived in her bedroom. The teenager, who has not been named, was taken to hospital after she complained of a pain in her right hip and lower back which later made her immobile, according to the online medical journal BMJ Case Reports. She suffered for two weeks with an intermittent fever, nausea and vomiting and had a pink rash on her hands and feet. The teenager, who had numerous pets including a dog, cat, horse and three pet rats, has since made a full recovery after undergoing a course of antibiotics. Blood tests showed that she was infected with for streptobacillus moniliformis – the most common cause of rat-bite fever. One of her three pet rats lay dead in her room for three weeks before her symptoms showed
7/22 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
8/22 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
9/22 Fat loss from pancreas 'can reverse' effects of type-2 diabetes
Less than half a teaspoon of fat is all that it takes to turn someone into a type-2 diabetic according to a study that could overturn conventional wisdom on a disease affecting nearly 3 million people in Britain. Researchers have found it is not so much the overall body fat that is important in determining the onset of type-2 diabetes but the small amount of fat deposited in the pancreas, the endocrine organ responsible for insulin production
10/22 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
11/22 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
12/22 Sugar tax
The Government should introduce a sugar tax to prevent an “obesity crisis” from crippling the NHS, a senior Conservative MP and former health minister has said. Dr Dan Poulter believes that the case for increased taxes on unhealthy sugary products was “increasingly compelling”
13/22 Cancer breakthrough offers new hope for survivors rendered infertile by chemotherapy
A potentially “phenomenal” scientific breakthrough has offered fresh hope to cancer patients rendered infertile by chemotherapy. For the first time, researchers managed to restore ovaries in mice affected by chemotherapy so that they were able to have offspring. The scientists now plan to begin clinical trials to see if the technique, which involves the use of stem cells, will also work in humans by using umbilical cord material and possibly stem cells taken from human embryos, if regulators agree
14/22 Take this NHS test to find out if you have a cancerous mole
An interactive test could help flag up whether you should seek advice from a health professional for one of the most common types of cancer. The test is available on the NHS Choices website and reveals whether you are at risk from the disease and recommends if you should seek help. The mole self-assessment factors in elements such as complexion, the number of times you have been severely sunburnt and whether skin cancer runs in your family. It also quizzes you on the number of moles you have and whether there have been any changes in appearance regarding size, shape and colour
15/22 Health apps approved by NHS 'may put users at risk of identity theft'
Experts have warned that some apps do not adequately protect personal information
16/22 A watchdog has said that care visits must last longer
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) said home help visits of less than 30 minutes were not acceptable unless part of a wider package of support
17/22 Pendle in Lancashire tops list of five most anxious places to live in the UK
Pendle in Lancashire has been named the most anxious place to live in the UK, while people living in Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland have been found to be the happiest
18/22 Ketamine could be used as anti-depressant
Researchers at the University of Auckland said monitoring the effects of the drug on the brain has revealed neural pathways that could aid the development of fast-acting medications. Ketamine is a synthetic compound used as an off anaesthetic and analgesic drug, but is commonly used illegally as a hallucinogenic party drug. Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, a senior researcher at the university and a member of the institution’s Centre for Brain Research, used the latest technology in brain imaging to investigate what mechanisms ketamine uses to be active in the human brain
19/22 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
20/22 The biggest cause of early death in the world is what you eat
Unhealthy eating has been named as the most common cause of premature death around the globe, new data has revealed. A poor diet – which involves eating too few vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains and too much red meat, salt and sugar - was shown to be a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol
21/22 Scientists develop blood test that estimates how quickly people age
Scientists believe it could be used to predict a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as the “youthfulness” of donated organs for transplant operations. The test measures the vitality of certain genes which the researchers believe is an accurate indication of a person’s “biological age”, which may be younger or older than their actual chronological age
22/22 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
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.