The EarlyBird Study
The EarlyBird Study is a 12 year research programme that is observing the health and lifestyle of a cohort of normal healthy children. The aim is to help parents and teachers understand the preventable factors in childhood that are responsible for the current epidemics of diabetes and heart disease.
Without such knowledge, rational attempts at prevention are not possible. Findings from the study are already helping inform the public about the early causes of diabetes and heart disease in their children and how they, as individuals, might avoid them.
Now entering its twelfth year, EarlyBird has already made a substantial impact – BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Case Notes, Frontiers, Am I Normal?, Time Magazine, The Economist, New Scientist; The Times, Daily Telegraph and Observer on Sunday. The study has published over 60 peer-reviewed articles in top medical journals such as Diabetes, Pediatrics, BMJ, International Journal of Obesity.
Man must Measure
Diabetes and heart disease are related to obesity, and everyone knows what causes obesity – or at least we think we do. But until we measure it, what we think we know is inevitably hunch, assumption or, worst of all, prejudice. EarlyBird is about measurement – and very careful measurement – of a large cohort of children over a long period of time. The results have sometimes challenged what we thought we knew, but they are statistically robust and have the authority of peer-reviewed publication in the world’s top medical journals. We must be receptive to what sometimes seems counterintuitive if we are to get to the bottom of childhood obesity.
Diabetes – an Explosive Issue
If the day that diabetes or heart disease strikes represents the explosion, then EarlyBird is concerned with the fuse – what ignites it, what keeps it burning and, most importantly, how best to put it out before it detonates. Diabetes is not itself a disease. Rather, it marks the end of a process. The process is one of resistance to the action of insulin (usually the result of weight gain) which places increasing demand on the beta cells of the pancreas to make more. Diabetes results when the beta cells can make no more insulin. The high levels of insulin that precede diabetes drive the disturbances that lead to heart disease, hypertension, stroke and large vessel disease.
There is a frustrating lack of evidence to justify the seemingly endless raft of new initiatives to tackle obesity. Health strategists seek evidence-based solutions, but there is at present only a limited evidence base in childhood, where the process mostly begins. The outcomes of adding fruit to the lunch-box or of prescribing two hours of PE a week, while intuitively good, are in reality unknown. Action is needed, but there seems little point throwing money blindly at the problem until the underlying mechanisms – social and biological – are understood.
Only then will it become clear when, where and towards whom scarce resources should be targeted. Understanding the problem has to be a key issue.
Diabetes – a 21st Century Epidemic
- 2.3 million people in the UK know they have diabetes
- A further 750,000 have diabetes but don’t yet know it
- By the time they are diagnosed, half will already have complications
Diabetes and its complications are fast becoming the UK’s No. 1 health threat, outstripping smoking-related diseases, cancer and drugs. Type 2 diabetes, so-called “adult” diabetes, is by far the commonest form, and it is of concern that teenagers and even younger children are now getting it. It is said that this will be the first generation where a significant number of parents will outlive their children – a chilling prediction. We need to find out why. Diabetes is more serious than people think, because of its complications. It is the commonest cause of blindness, kidney failure and amputation. Heart attacks and strokes are three times more likely in diabetes. It has been predicted that, unless present trends are slowed, one in five of children born in 2000 will develop diabetes in their lifetime.