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UK ramps up health über-database

We take part (voluntarily) in Biobank UK

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Napoleon called the British a nation of shopkeepers, but we'll be nation of statistics if UK Biobank has its way.

It's a scheme backed by the Government and the NHS, and by major medical NGOs and charities, including the Wellcome Trust and the British Heart Foundation. Its aim is to evaluate the lifestyles of half-a-million adults aged 40 and above, and this reporter is one of them. Today, I took the first step in a project that will monitor my medical history until I no longer have one.

The project's some way from its target - so far, under 230,000 participants have signed up - but it's still sufficient to generate a meaningful statistical model that will help establish links between lifestyle and medical wellbeing.

It's taken a while to get this far. The survey began as a pilot scheme in Manchester back in 2006. The plan is to have the initial data from the 500,000 by 2010.

Many of the factors Biobank will take into account are obvious: smoking, alcohol consumption, sexual history, am I eating enough veg?

Technology fans will be interested to learn that mobile phone usage is also being tracked: how long to I use my phone, what side of my head do I hold it up to and do I use a headset?

That should calm or confirm the fears of the tinfoil hat brigade once and for all.

It won't be sufficient to necessarily claim a direct causal relationship between mobile phone usage and, say, the incidence of brain tumours, but the pattern that will emerge from the numbers will show whether its a contributory factor.

And that's the point: to track as many of the components that make up an adult individual's health as possible to allow, over time, the numbers to be crunched and probed for patterns, giving an insight into the way genes, lifestyle and environmental factors come together to if not determine then certainly nudge in a given direction an individual's long-term health.

While there's plenty of molecular and biochemical data available to reserchers, there's rather less in the way of consistent clinic information. Where this exists, it's usually the result of studies seeking to establish links between specific factors and outcomes. The idea behind Biobank is to provide an overarching data set future studies can tap into without having to limit the scope of the inquiry for practical reasons.

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