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For 30 Years This Gold-Standard Study Has Generated Insights on Human Health

Since 1991, researchers based at the University of Bristol in the U.K. have been following the lives of 14,000 children and their families from the Avon region in the West of England, tracking details about their health, development, and relationships. Locally known as the ‘Children of the 90s’ project, and also as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), the project is one of the most-detailed longitudinal population studies in the world. Beginning before birth, it has used a “collect everything that may contribute to health” philosophy to track the impact of a multitude of factors on the lives of its participants. To date, it has led to a number of remarkable breakthroughs, including the discovery that oily fish (such as salmon or sardines) eaten during pregnancy is associated with enhanced IQ and improved eyesight of children, and that exercising fifteen minutes a day may cut obesity risk by as much as half. Repeatedly its findings have led to public health policy changes. These include the fact that peanut allergies can result from peanut oil in creams used on babies, leading to warning labels being required on those preparations that still contain peanut (arachis) oil.

Now it is bringing this immense and powerful set of data, from a cohort now in their early thirties, together with their parents, to an area of analysis it had previously barely explored: the role of religion and spirituality in shaping and influencing health over the lifespan. ALSPAC is one of a handful of gold-standard birth cohort studies tracking health outcomes as well as a multitude of biological, clinical, and social measures from its participants. Despite this, up until this year, of the more than 2,000 publications produced from ALSPAC, only two had looked at any of the study’s religion data in relation to health outcomes.

To address that discrepancy and leverage the study’s incredible potential for answering other questions, the John Templeton Foundation is giving one of its largest grants ever, $11 million towards a five-year, $21.5 million project within the ALSPAC to enable the study to collect new waves of data from the original parents and their 30-year old offspring and investigate fundamental questions about whether people’s religious or spiritual beliefs and practices contribute to health, happiness, or long-term flourishing.


The new project’s principal investigators are ALSPAC’s founder, the renowned epidemiologist Professor Jean Golding, together with other epidemiologists Dr. Kate Northstone (ALSPAC’s current Executive Director for data), Professor Abigail Fraser and Yasmin Iles-Caven, together with epigenetics researcher Dr. Matt Suderman and research psychologist Dr. Carol Joinson. The project team will draw on the expertise of an additional 34 international co-investigators from a wide range of disciplines.

The project aims to help investigators deliver rigorous answers to a host of present-day and future questions, including whether religion encourages resilience after trauma; whether illness changes religious beliefs or practices; whether parents’ religious beliefs and practices help guard their children’s health; which biological mechanisms underlie the health consequences; and whether religious or spiritual beliefs predicted or moderated the ways individuals responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its data and findings will contribute to the larger ALSPAC corpus for years to come — last year the survey had its core funding renewed with a grant from the Wellcome Trust and Medical Research Council, ensuring years of additional data-gathering with the ‘Children of the 90s’ — and their own children as well.

“Dr. Golding and her collaborators have created an incredible opportunity to explore how religious beliefs and practices might impact health–both across the lifespan and across generations,” said Nicholas Gibson, the John Templeton Foundation’s Director for Human Sciences. “With three decades of data to work with, and a robust and transparent approach to planned analyses, we are really excited to see what they will discover.”


Learn more about the ALSPAC and its key discoveries thus far.

Read more about the research of principal investigators Jean Golding, Kate Northstone, Yasmin L Iles-Caven, Abigail Fraser, Carol J Joinson, and Matthew J Suderman.