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Closer - The home of longitudinal research

Life chances

Toddler being thrown up in the air by his dad standing below ready to catch himLongitudinal research is essential to understanding the complexities of the factors that influence an individual’s life chances. It allows an exploration of how different groups vary, and how and why people’s lives change, enabling a greater understanding of the difference between causal relationships and correlation. Findings from the UK’s longitudinal population studies have continuously demonstrated the vital role that early life plays across a wide range of biomedical and social areas of life. 

Research using data from longitudinal population studies show that factors such as mother’s health during pregnancy, child’s birthweight, parents’ education and employment, family’s housing, and socio- economic circumstances can have a lasting effect on children’s cognitive, social, and behavioural development. In particular, being born into poverty or disadvantage can have lasting effects on health, education, employment, and ageing. 

Key messages

  • The nutritional status of both women and men before conception has profound implications for the growth, development, and long-term outcomes of their offspring. Recent evidence suggests that intervening to improve men’s and women’s nutritional status before pregnancy improves long-term outcomes for mothers and babies. 
  • Educational attainment is strongly associated with quality of diet and fruit and vegetable intake before pregnancy, with the more highly educated being more likely to conform to dietary recommendations. This underlines the need for increased awareness for those women who are planning a pregnancy, with a focus on disadvantaged women. 
  • Findings from several longitudinal population studies indicate the value of breastfeeding. It has shown to be beneficial for cognitive development and is associated with eating habits in later life: people who had been exclusively breastfed ate more fruit, vegetables, wholemeal cereals, and oily fish as adults than those who were breast and bottle-fed or bottle-fed only. They were also less likely to eat lots of white bread, chips, added sugar and processed meat. The benefits were strongest for infants whose mothers’ faced circumstances that may have deterred them from breastfeeding, such as poor health and single parenthood. 
  • Research using data from longitudinal population studies demonstrates the importance of communications skills and language development on later life outcomes. Research looking at the gender gap in literacy and language development found that boys are more likely to fall behind than girls by the time they start school.  
  • Findings from longitudinal population studies have shown a link between reading for pleasure and better vocabularies, suggesting that if young people are encouraged to discover a love for books at an early age it could alter the course of their lives, regardless of their background. 
  • Research shows that early language is a crucial stepping-stone to literacy and that children with good language ability at age five are more likely to have both higher qualifications and to be in employment compared to their peers. The research found that employing early years’ teachers with graduate level qualifications has a measurable impact on children’s language development. 

Evidence