Back in the early 1960s, researchers were seeing a rise in asthma, and wanted to know why.
- All participants have been part of the Tasmanian Longitudinal Health Study since 1968, but they’ve never met en masse before
- The study looks at people’s lifestyle, what type of heating they use, where they work, and even how close they live to a main road
- As part of the next stage, researchers look at what happens to people’s lungs after they turn 60
They tested 8,500 Tasmanian children’s lung function, and have followed the participants’ lives ever since, becoming the world’s longest respiratory health study.
In a function room at a Hobart hotel, 50 participants and researchers in the Tasmanian Longitudinal Health Study (TAHS) have now come together.
All the participants, or ‘probands’ as they are scientifically known, have been part of the study since 1968, but they’ve never met en masse before.
Surprised faces are aplenty in the room as participants see old school mates, who they had no idea were part of the study.
Friends Filomena Wise and Denise Armstrong became friends 30 years ago, when studying teaching.
“I saw her name on the guest list and I got in contact with her and said, ‘I had no idea you were part of this study’,” Ms Armstrong said.
In another corner of the room, half a dozen staff members who all work at the Royal Hobart Hospital find it amusing they didn’t know they were all probands in this study.
Karen Gower Bradley was one of the original recruits that had her lung function tested as a child, and initiated the idea of having this get together to commemorate the 60th birth year of all the participants.
“We’d all travelled this road for 60 years together and it was a real important milestone for all of us in our own lives,” she said.
Ms Gower Bradley, who was a presenter on 7.30 at ABC Hobart in the 1980s, remembers going to tests with her mother as a child, and when older, filling in the forms the TAHS sent her in the mail.
“I [kept going with the study] out of loyalty to my mum, but then became engaged with it and thought, ‘actually, this maybe matters because it’s a long form study that shows the passage of people right through their life’,” she said.
“If the study keeps running, then that collection of data over the course of a person’s life living in a particular place is really invaluable.”
Regular surveys about lifestyle, work life
The TAHS was established by Heather Gibson, who helped create the School Medical Service in Tasmania, and respiratory physician Bryan Gandevia, both of whom were supported by statistician Harold Silverstone.
In 1968, 8,500 Tasmanian children’s lung function was tested. Their parents and any siblings were also surveyed, a total of almost 46,000 people.
Eight years later, lung function testing was performed on a sample of 850 of the original 8,500 participants.
Since then, TAHS has regularly conducted surveys asking participants about their lifestyle, what type of heating they used, where they worked, and even how close they lived to a main road.
More recently, they’ve been asked to undergo an MRI to better understand respiratory health as we grow older.
Shyamali Dharmage has been the principal investigator of TAHS since 2001 and understands the significant impact the study’s findings have had on creating paradigm shifts in thinking in this area.
“TAHS changed scientific knowledge about Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a respiratory illness that impacts large numbers of people, particularly in older age,” Professor Dharmage said.
“Previously, COPD was seen as a ‘smoker’s disease’, but the TAHS revealed other health and environmental factors from childhood and throughout life which influence the risk and severity of COPD.
“In clinical practice, the early detection of COPD has been made easier due to knowledge of these risk factors.”
Researchers setting an ambitious target for the next stage
Those afflicted with asthma have been advised by the TAHS that they use preventative medication to reduce the severity instead of just using it when symptoms occur.
Sufferers of sleep apnoea can also thank the TAHS for Medicare rebates being expanded for treatment by specialists.
TAHS has just begun its latest follow up that will run through to 2027 with their original recruits, as research shows COPD worsens from the age of 60.
“A subset of participants, those with lower-level lung capacity and average capacity, will be invited for CT scans that take images of the lungs so we can look for changes in lung structure associated with lung capacity,” Professor Dharmage said.
An essential part of this follow up is also trying to get in contact with as many of the original participants as possible with an ambitious target of finding 4,000 of them who are now scattered all over the world.
Ms Gower Bradley is one of the participants that has been able to undertake some of the more complex testing in recent times, such as an MRI, and hopes as many participants as possible can continue to contribute to the study.
“I am very glad to be part of it because it all adds to the store house of health knowledge that is so important to us,” she said.