What is the difference between a prospective and retrospective cohort study?

The easiest way to remember the difference between prospective and retrospective cohort studies is timing. 

  • A prospective cohort study moves forward in time, following a group of participants to track the development of an outcome of interest.
  • A retrospective cohort study moves backward in time, first identifying a group of people who already possess the outcome of interest, and then looking backwards to assess their exposure to a risk factor.