Combining longitudinal data from different cohorts to examine the life-course trajectory

Rachael A Hughes*, Kate Tilling, Deborah A Lawlor

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)
58 Downloads (Pure)


Longitudinal data are necessary to reveal changes within an individual as he or she ages. However, rarely will a single cohort study capture data throughout a person’s entire life span. Here we describe in detail the steps needed to develop life-course trajectories from cohort studies that cover different and overlapping periods of life. Such independent studies are probably from heterogenous populations, which raises several challenges, including: 1) data harmonization (deriving new harmonized variables from differently measured variables by identifying common elements across all studies); 2) systematically missing data (variables not measured are missing for all participants in a cohort); and 3) model selection with differing age ranges and measurement schedules. We illustrate how to overcome these challenges using an example which examines the associations of parental education, sex, and race/ethnicity with children’s weight trajectories. Data were obtained from 5 prospective cohort studies (carried out in Belarus and 4 regions of the United Kingdom) spanning data collected from birth to early adulthood during differing calendar periods (1936–1964, 1972–1979, 1990–2012, 1996–2016, and 2007–2015). Key strengths of our approach include modeling of trajectories over wide age ranges, sharing of information across studies, and direct comparison of the same parts of the life course in different geographical regions and time periods. We also introduce a novel approach of imputing individual-level covariates of a multilevel model with a nonlinear growth trajectory and interactions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2680-2689
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Epidemiology
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.


  • Barry Caerphilly growth study
  • Born in Bradford
  • Christ Hospital study
  • life-course
  • mixed-effects models
  • repeated measures


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