Scientists Will Track Child Health From the Womb to Age 21

Josey Tsao/Guardian

Parents won’t be the only ones watching their children before they leave the nest. Starting this month, UCSD researchers will be tracking the health and development of San Diegans from birth to the age of 21.

San Diego is one of 105 participating cities in the National Children’s Study, in which researchers will recruit enough pregnant women to study over 100,000 babies nationally. Researchers hope to identify environmental and genetic factors that may influence child health, disease and development.

“[The study covers] everything from the air that you breathe to the water that you drink, to the dust particles in your home, to your diet, medications you take, being exposed to smoke or secondhand smoke, genetics and how all of those things might interact to either put a child at risk of developing something like autism or diabetes or obesity or asthma,” pediatrics professor Christina Chambers said.

The research team will observe the child being born, collect blood samples from the mothers’ umbilical cord and track exposure to environmental pollutants.

This is the pilot year for the 37 new vanguard centers, which will attempt to recruit about 4,000 pregnant women. In San Diego, researchers will visit about 10,000 households to recruit 1,000 pregnant women or women who plan to become pregnant from 14 demographically representative neighborhoods, such as Escondido, North Park and Fallbrook. They will follow these women and their children for 21 years.

The study as a whole started less than two years ago in seven original vanguard centers in counties throughout the United States.

San Diego is one of the 30 vanguard centers that have been added to the study. The trial study ends this year, with the main study starting in 2012.

To compile a comprehensive study, researchers will select random sample households in representative neighborhoods, from Salt Lake County to New York City.

They then ask each household to participate in the study by going door to door in the neighborhoods and recruiting pregnant women or women considering becoming pregnant.

There have been similar studies of child health, though none have spanned more than eight years. This study will proceed for at least 27 years, as researchers will continue to recruit participants nationwide over the next four years.

A smaller study in the 1950s involved 50,000 children and 11 centers throughout the U.S., and studied the children up to the age of seven.

The 2011 study’s colossal scale, with a protracted timeline and twice as many participants as the 1950s study, sets it apart from others.

“The reason why it’s unique is that it’s the largest and longest of its kind,” Chambers said.

Another distinguishing factor of the study is that it will be universally relevant.

“What we’re trying to do is establish kind of a very global study of all kinds of environmental factors that may influence child health and development,” Chambers said.

The San Diego sector of the study is a collaboration between UCSD’s Department of Pediatrics and SDSU’s Graduate School of Public Health.