Nearly blocked by political concerns, the Adolescent Health Study has had a major impact on understanding of social factors affecting adolescent health and the effect of adolescent health on long-term adult well-being. Five social scientists whose determined pursuit of knowledge about the factors that influence adolescent health led to one of the most influential longitudinal studies of human health received the first Golden Goose Award of 2016.
The researchers, Peter Bearman, Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald Rindfuss, and Richard Udry (now deceased), all worked at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) in the late 1980s and early 1990s to design and execute the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or Add Health. The landmark study has not only illuminated the impact of social and environmental factors on adolescent health—often in unanticipated ways—but also continues to help shape the national conversation around human health. What began as a study driven both by social science curiosity and public health concerns has been central to shaping the national conversation around adolescent health, including the nation’s obesity epidemic, for more than two decades.
The Golden Goose Award honors scientists whose federally funded work may have seemed odd or obscure when it was first conducted but has resulted in significant benefits to society. Bearman, Entwisle, Harris, Rindfuss, and Udry were cited for their extraordinary multidisciplinary, longitudinal study of the social and biological factors that influence adolescent health, and their work’s wide-ranging and often unexpected impacts on society.
The path-breaking nationally representative Add Health study has answered many questions about adolescent behavior, with particular attention to sexual and other risky behaviors, but it was almost stopped by political concerns.
The study’s design grew out of the American Teenage Study, a project developed by Bearman, Entwisle, Rindfuss, and Udry. This initial study was designed to look at adolescents’ risky behaviors in a social context, rather than focusing only on individuals, in hopes of helping the nation address the growing AIDS epidemic and other public health concerns. After two years of planning work funded by the ational Institutes of Health (NIH), the grant was subsequently rescinded due to objections regarding the study’s focus on sexual behaviors.
In 1993, Congress passed legislation forbidding the NIH from funding the American Teenage Study in the future, but at the same time mandating a longitudinal study on adolescent health that would consider all behaviors related to their health–implicitly including sexual behavior. n 1994, The team, now joined at UNC by Harris, proposed Add Health to meet Congress’s new mandate. The new study maintained the original study design’s strong focus on social context, but significantly expanded the scope of inquiry to include all factors influencing adolescent health.
The study has followed its original cohort for over 20 years, and it is now providing valuable information about the unanticipated impacts of adolescent health on overall wellbeing in adulthood. For this reason, the researchers recently changed the study’s name to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health.
This article is from the May-June 2016 issue of Footnotes