On Friday, I headed for an anonymous tower block in Croydon, where I spent a morning giving blood samples, cycling on an exercise bike while hooked up to an ECG, spitting into a jar, being weighed, measured and having my reactions and memory tested. Why? All in the name of science.
As I spend so much time writing about medical research studies, I was completely unable to resist the opportunity to take part in one. And not just any old one. The UK Biobank project is one of the biggest ongoing research studies in the world.
It aims to recruit over a million UK citizens, across the whole spectrum, to gather an enormous amount of data. This huge dataset will then be used as a fantastic resource for researchers in years to come, answering key questions about the interplay between nature and nurture. In other words, how much of your health is down to your environment and lifestyle, and how much to your genetic inheritance? I was one of the many people to receive an invitation to take part.
I did think twice before accepting. I do have concerns about data protection and privacy. I’ve agreed that not only my medical records, but my DNA samples, can be used by anyone given permission to carry out the research. Of course, that will be on an anonymised basis. But human error always happens, and I’m aware no set of data is 100 percent secure.
I decided to go with my instincts (and curiosity) by agreeing to take part. We all benefit from good quality medical research, and the studies I enjoy dissecting for my living wouldn’t happen if everyone decided to be precious about their privacy.
So what will these lucky researchers find out about me? So far, that my lung function, body mass index, intra-ocular eye pressure, bone density and blood pressure are fine. Phew. They’ll know more than I do about my cholesterol level, my DNA profile, my hearing and intelligence.
They’ll probably know less than me about my diet and exercise. I filled in all the questionnaires, but honestly, can you say how many portions of fruit you ate last week? Or swear to how much time you spent doing moderately vigorous activity? Was that biscuit yesterday, or the day before? Do I count walking to work, or is that already covered in my commuting information?
I’ll be a little more suspicious next time I look at a study which relies on people filling in dietary questionnaires, or estimating how much exercise they do. Not only is it hard to remember, it’s so tempting to ‘improve’ your answers a little. Go on, be honest, do you round up or down your alcohol units when the doctor asks?
But I do support the overall aims of the project, and wish the researchers well. Maybe, come my decreptitude, I’ll be offered a memory-saving drug that was developed with help from the UK Biobank project. Maybe it’ll even help me remember what I ate yesterday.
Image: The Mouse from Darney’s photostream at Flickr.com with CCL.