“The Dunedin Longitudinal Study” or the “Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study” (now also known just as “The Dunedin Study”) can fairly be described as one of the most amazing and detailed studies EVER of how important “The Forever Years” of childhood are in shaping the adults we become. Recently a four part TV series was screened about the study. Entitled “Why am I?”, the series looks at the different areas examined in “The Dunedin Study”. Findings from the study illuminate adult problematic issues, many of which can now be identified within the first five years of life. For those who have not seen “Why am I?”, it is available at the link below, although friends overseas tell me that they cannot get TVNZ On Demand outside of NZ. (Give it a go anyway). For those here in Aotearoa/ NZ, you have to sign up to TVNZ On Demand, but it is free to do so.
The author (far right) with her parents, brother, an aunt and two cousins in Dunedin, 1981
I have a strong personal interest in this study, because my brother and two of my cousins are/ were participants and it began, and is still based in, my home town, Dunedin/ Ōtepoti, New Zealand/ Aotearoa. Many memories of my own “Forever Years” are similar to those of study participants.
Map showing location of Dunedin, New Zealand.
“The Dunedin Study” was started in 1972 by Phil Silva, a teacher and psychologist.
Psychologist Phil Silva is emeritus director of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which has tracked around 1000 people from infancy to middle age. Source: ALDEN WILLIAMS/FAIRFAX NZ
Silva was a teacher first, then a psychologist working with young people with learning and behaviour problems. He helped paediatricians from the Otago University medical school on a neonatology survey of around 250 children. It became the basis of his PhD and opened his eyes to a staggering number of undiagnosed childhood problems.
A child participant, late 1970s
“Kids who couldn’t hear, kids who couldn’t see, kids who had language problems, kids who had language delay. Let’s say that one in 10 had a pretty important problem that had not been identified and dealt with.”
He realised they needed a bigger study of a larger sample group. So they identified the 1037 children born at Dunedin’s Queen Mary Hospital between April 1972 and March 1973. They tested and assessed them at age 3, then 5, 7 and so on. [Source: http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/81109052/national-portrait-phil-silva-psychology-pioneer]
Luckily for Silva and his team, and for all of us, funding for the study has continued and the testing was able to continue as the “babies” grew into children, teenagers and then adults. Dr. Silva retired from his position as director of the study in 1999 and the role was taken over by Dr. Richie Poulton, who continues “The Dunedin Study” today.
The study is unique in that researchers have gone out of their way to retain participants. Many are now scattered around New Zealand and the world, but, every six years, the study pays for them to be flown, from wherever they are, to Dunedin for testing. This has resulted in a world record longitudinal study retention rate of 96% of participants (compared with a 30% rate of retention in other studies). Current director, Dr. Richie Poulton, says,
“…our advantage is that we keep them in. … We have kept [participants] whether they are transient, incarcerated or on the run from the law.”
The high retention rate of participants, Poulton says, as well as the wide and extremely varied lives they have led, gives weight to the data collected.
NZ Tourism Poster
“In the early days there was a reluctance to take the study seriously. Some thought results from 1000 people in New Zealand couldn’t possibly apply to people in other parts of the world. This was in part due to the 1970s New Zealand Tourism Board, which promoted Aotearoa as a tropical Polynesian destination.” [Source: Why am I?, Episode 1].
As time went by however, it became apparent that results of “The Dunedin Study” were comparable with similar studies in other developed countries around the globe. Over the past 40 years there has been an average on one academic paper published every 13 days, relating to the findings of “The Dunedin Study”.
We at the “Forever Years” believe these study findings should be available to all people everywhere, and will have a huge impact on our perception of childhood, particularly the early years. Some of the areas of major findings in children which have continued into their adulthoods are summarised below.
“The Octagon” (Centre of town), Dunedin NZ, c. 1972
For the next few posts, “The Forever Years” will be writing short articles on these topics, the results discovered in “The Dunedin Study” and how these can be used to help children… and people in general. We will create links on the following topics, so readers can click on them (in the list below) and read about a particular aspect investigated by “The Dunedin Study”. These will be useful to members of the general public, anywhere in the world, who are unable to access the documentary. We hope they will also help to summarise and clarify some of the main points made in the documentary and through the research undertaken by “The Dunedin Study”, with a focus on identifying particular issues in early childhood.
Dr. Poulton says the experience of being director of “The Dunedin Study” has changed him and given him a deeper understanding of altruism, trust and courage. Among participants, he says, are people who have had very hard lives, including those who have trusted researchers with personal information they have never told anyone else, such as having been sexually abused. “We have to honour their trust,” Poulton says, “…we are the guardians of a reservoir of extraordinary good will.” He says it is important that the results of the study (and continuing results as the participants move into middle and then old age) move “outside the ivory tower of academia”, so they can be implemented in general society.
Richie Poulton, talking with a child in an early learning centre.
Childhood is a time of hope and possibility for both children and parents. “The Dunedin Study” has identified that many adult problems begin much earlier in life than we’d previously imagined. But it has also found overwhelming evidence of the benefits to children of a good start in life… and that a good start can avert what may initially appear to be negative personality traits (positive nurture can overcome negative nature, if you like). Overall, then, we at “The Forever Years” believe the message presented in data collected is one of hope for our children, if the results are then acted upon. Acting upon them will mean early intervention for “at risk” children and a greater investment in our children’s early years, including in supporting parents and in quality early childhood education. A “good childhood” with a balanced and predictable environment and parenting which is warm, stimulating, sensitive and consistent sets people up for the best life trajectory.