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High-quality evidence from prospective longitudinal studies in humans is essential to testing hypotheses related to the developmental origins of health and disease. In this paper, the authors draw upon their own experiences leading birth cohorts with longitudinal follow-up into adulthood to describe specific challenges and lessons learned. Challenges are substantial and grow over time. Long-term funding is essential for study operations and critical to retaining study staff, who develop relationships with participants and hold important institutional knowledge and technical skill sets. To maintain contact, we recommend that cohorts apply multiple strategies for tracking and obtain as much high-quality contact information as possible before the child’s 18th birthday. To maximize engagement, we suggest that cohorts offer flexibility in visit timing, length, location, frequency, and type. Data collection may entail multiple modalities, even at a single collection timepoint, including measures that are self-reported, research-measured, and administrative with a mix of remote and in-person collection. Many topics highly relevant for adolescent and young adult health and well-being are considered to be private in nature, and their assessment requires sensitivity. To motivate ongoing participation, cohorts must work to understand participant barriers and motivators, share scientific findings, and provide appropriate compensation for participation. It is essential for cohorts to strive for broad representation including individuals from higher risk populations, not only among the participants but also the staff. Successful longitudinal follow-up of a study population ultimately requires flexibility, adaptability, appropriate incentives, and opportunities for feedback from participants.
Understanding place-based contributors to health requires geographically and culturally diverse study populations, but sharing location data is a significant challenge to multisite studies. Here, we describe a standardized and reproducible method to perform geospatial analyses for multisite studies. Using census tract-level information, we created software for geocoding and geospatial data linkage that was distributed to a consortium of birth cohorts located throughout the USA. Individual sites performed geospatial linkages and returned tract-level information for 8810 children to a central site for analyses. Our generalizable approach demonstrates the feasibility of geospatial analyses across study sites to promote collaborative translational research.
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