Book review: The Life Project by Helen Pearson

March 24, 2016
Allen Lane, £20

Four studies in the past 70 years have collected vast amounts of information about the lifestyles, health, attitudes and social status of more than 70,000 people in the UK. Collectively these four unrivalled “cohorts” supply a wealth of data for social, medical and epidemiological research. The findings have been used to unravel everything from the risks of home births to the link between smoking and lung cancer and the effect of class on education and opportunity.

But, as science writer Helen Pearson explains, the genesis and evolution of these projects have been precarious and at times controversial. They have often relied on a distinctly British blend of eccentricity and makeshift improvisation. The first cohort study, begun in 1946 amid the travails of post-war austerity, focused mainly on conditions surrounding pregnancy and birth. Its insights into the relationship between poverty and health gave a context for the creation of the welfare state. The message of the cohort studies was not always politically welcome, and their future looked threatened during the years of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

One recurring theme, disturbingly resistant to political intervention, is that socioeconomic disadvantage early in life may have long-term implications for health and earning capacity. Now that wealth disparities and deprivation are hot issues again, Pearson’s account is a timely reminder of the value of large, sustained cohort studies. It’s regrettable, then, that attempts to launch a fifth cohort in 2012-15 failed through lack of volunteers. Without hard data public policy is more susceptible to wishful thinking