Generation on record

August 18, 2000

Julia Hinde kicks off a three-page special on New Zealand research with a look at a unique study that has followed the development of 1,000 people from their birth years ago More than a quarter of young women and as many as a third of young men report physical abuse at the hands of their partner. Become a young mum or dad and the chances of becoming the victim or perpetrator of partner violence snowball.

These uncomfortable findings are among the latest eye openers from a remarkable -year study that has illuminated almost every aspect of child and teenage health and development - and produced more than 700 academic publications.

From the environmental factors behind deviant adolescent behaviour to understanding conditions likely to lead to asthma, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, hosted by the University of Otago, has developed into what has been described as the most detailed study of human health and development ever undertaken.

Almost 96 per cent of the original sample of 1,000 deliveries recorded at a hospital in the New Zealand town of Dunedin between April 1972 and March 1973 are still enrolled in the study, returning periodically to Dunedin to open their hearts and minds to researchers.

Members of the cohort, a fifth of whom are now living outside New Zealand, undertake everything from simple cognitive tests and medical examinations, to answering detailed, confidential questionnaires on self-hurt, alcohol use, criminal behaviour and sexual relationships. "The study is unique," explains its founder, Phil Silva, who recently retired as director of the initiative.

"Over the years, we have had hardly any attrition, and the breadth of aspects covered has been remarkable. When we started we had little money. We used volunteers for staff and borrowed everything. But we got the support of the parents, and now of their children. New Zealanders like to support the underdog."

Silva, a former teacher and educational psychologist who has a son in the cohort, wanted to understand what factors led children to develop learning and behavioural problems. When the study began, complicated births were considered to be a potential cause. The study soon disproved this, instead pointing to low birth weight as an important factor. Breast feeding, childhood experiences, poverty and family separation all then came under the spotlight as researchers tried to piece together the influences shaping a child's development.

"It was always a year-by-year thing, but people were enthused by the dream and the possibility," Silva says.

The latest phase of the project attracted researchers from Europe and the United States as well as Australia and New Zealand, and almost half the latest round of funding came from abroad.

As the cohort matures, new questions have begun to be asked. Photographs of participants' backs have been taken so possible melanoma development can be monitored, while questions have been asked about the participants' relationships with their own children. Blood samples have even been collected to create a genetic database.

"Genes are part of your ingredients, relationships are ever important catalysts in behavioural development, while experiences provide the setting and feedback that shape the way we develop. The three are interactive," Silva says.

"We are given very powerful biological determinants when we are conceived. But the fact remains that once we have them, it's experience, environment, management and education that matter. And these are the things we can do something about."

Despite stepping down as the director of the study, Silva is confident of its future: "I think the study will continue for ever."


Of the 1,037 children enrolled at age three, 980 - 96 per cent of those still alive - were seen at age 26. Among them they had 330 children; 22 per cent had one child or more; 75 per cent were working; seven were in jail; 22 per cent had a university degree and 15 per cent had no school qualifications.Just 43 per cent remained in Dunedin. Forty per cent had smokedfor more than a month in the past year, 94 per cent drank, while 4per cent had represented New Zealand at sport.

At age 21, per cent of the women and 34 per cent of the men reported they had been physically abused by their partner. About 37 per cent of women and 22 per cent of men said they had perpetrated such violence.

Women who were mums by 21 were twice as likely to be physically abused by their partners than women withoutchildren. Men with children by 21were three timesas likely to report being perpetrators of violence.

Childhood risk factors for male perpetrators included poverty and low academic achievement, while for women, it was harsh family discipline and parental strife. Both male and female perpetrators tended to have histories of aggressive behaviour.

Parental disagreement about discipline and changes in a child's primary care giver were associated with antisocial behaviour as an adolescent.

A third of 15-year-olds engaged in delinquentbehaviour such as shoplifting andvandalism. By 18,90 per cent of boys reported some degree of delinquent behaviour. But only 5 per cent of teenagers seemed hardened in their delinquency.

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