Health and Medicine

Carolina Population Center receives $38.2 million to study adult health, aging

Add Health study is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the United States to track the health of adolescents who have now aged into adulthood.

Mother walking with two children outside
Grants help UNC-Chapel Hill researchers examine impact of adolescence on aging.(Shutterstock Image)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been awarded $38.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to continue to lead the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) as the study focuses on aging.

Based at the Carolina Population Center, Add Health is the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind in the United States. The study began with more than 20,000 adolescents surveyed in 1994-95. Since then, data have been collected about their educational experiences, employment, children and parenting, genetics and health.

The new grants will enable researchers to follow the group into their 40s, and better understand how early life – during adolescence and young adulthood – matters for health and well-being in middle age and beyond.

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Kathleen Mullan Harris directed Add Health from 2004-2021 and this year UNC-Chapel Hill professors Robert Hummer and Allison Aiello assume leadership.

“Research on the early signs and symptoms of health conditions that usually manifest in older age, such as cognitive impairment, age-related loss of physical functioning and dementia, are rarely studied in early midlife, particularly at the national level,” said Aiello, Add Health deputy director, epidemiologist at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center.

“The new measures of cognitive and physical functioning will provide an opportunity for researchers to study the accumulation of risk or preventative factors in later-life health, decades before conditions emerge in older age,” Aiello said.

Add Health researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill work closely with those at RTI International, the University of Vermont and Exam One to conduct the study. The team of sociologists, psychologists, epidemiologists, physicians and research methodologists collaborate on study design, data collection and distributing data across the world.

Their focus in the new, sixth wave of data collection is on the cognitive, mental and physical health of Add Health participants, with particular attention given to disparities in health outcomes across racial and ethnic, socioeconomic and gender groups.

The newly funded research will also facilitate data collection surrounding rising health risks in middle age.

“Add Health has evolved because of a trusted, lengthy partnership between researchers, participants and funders,” said Hummer, Add Health director and the Howard W. Odum Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the UNC-Chapel Hill. “It’s astounding how this ground-up effort has evolved over many decades and continues to impact the way we understand human health.”

More than 3,500 articles have been published using Add Health data. Those studies have exposed the obesity epidemic, raised awareness of high blood pressure in young adults and pioneered work on how the social environment interacts with genetic markers to influence behavior and health in adulthood.

Add Health data have also been instrumental in helping the scientific community better understand health disparities in the United States.