What Is a Cohort Study? | Definition & Examples

A cohort study is a type of observational study that follows a group of participants over a period of time, examining how certain factors (like exposure to a given risk factor) affect their health outcomes. The individuals in the cohort have a characteristic or lived experience in common, such as birth year or geographic area.

While there are several types of cohort study—including open, closed, and dynamic—there are two that are particularly common: prospective cohort studies and retrospective cohort studies.

Example: Cohort study
The Millennium Cohort Study is a large-scale cohort study that began in 2000. It aims to investigate the health of children born in the United Kingdom between 2000 and 2002.

The initial cohort consisted of about 18,000 newborns. They were enrolled in the study shortly after birth, with regular follow-ups, medical examinations, and cognitive assessments to track their physical, social, and cognitive development.

The Millennium Cohort Study has generated numerous findings on a wide range of health and social issues. In particular, it has highlighted the importance of early childhood education for cognitive development, and the impact of familial and social factors on children’s health.

Cohort studies are particularly useful for identifying risk factors for diseases. They can help researchers identify potential interventions to help prevent or treat the disease, and are often used in fields like medicine or healthcare research.

When to use a cohort study

Cohort studies are a type of observational study that can be qualitative or quantitative in nature. They can be used to conduct both exploratory research and explanatory research depending on the research topic.

In prospective cohort studies, data is collected over time to compare the occurrence of the outcome of interest in those who were exposed to the risk factor and those who were not. This can help ascertain whether the risk factor could be associated with the outcome.

In retrospective cohort studies, your participants must already possess the disease or health outcome being studied prior to joining. The study is then focused on analyzing the health outcomes of those who share the exposure to the risk factor over a period of time.

Tip
Prospective cohort studies look forwards in time, to examine the relationship between the exposure and the outcome.

Retrospective cohort studies look backwards in time to examine the relationship between the exposure and the outcome.

A cohort study could be a good fit for your research if:

  1. You have access to a large pool of research subjects and are comfortable and able to fund research stretching over a longer timeline.
  2. The relationship between the exposure and health outcome you’re studying is not well understood, and/or its long-term effects have not been thoroughly investigated.
  3. The exposure you’re studying is rare, or there are possible ethical considerations preventing you from a traditional experimental design.
Note
Many students confuse cohort studies with case–control studies. While they are both types of observational studies, they are not interchangeable research methods.

  • Cohort studies in general are more longitudinal in nature. They usually follow the group studied over a long period of time, investigating how certain factors affect their health outcomes.
  • Case–control studies rely on primary research, comparing a group of participants already possessing a condition of interest to a control group lacking that condition in real time.

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Examples of cohort studies

Cohort studies are common in fields like medicine, epidemiology, and healthcare.

Example: Prospective cohort study
You are examining the relationship between exposure to pesticides and the incidence of a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.

You recruit a group of healthy participants, all of whom were free of Parkinson’s disease at the beginning of your study. You then collect data on their exposure to pesticides over time, tracking incidences of Parkinson’s disease. After several years, your results conclude that those who were exposed to higher levels of pesticides had a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease compared to those who were not.

Example: Retrospective cohort study
You are interested in how tick-borne diseases spread. You interview a cohort of people who have been diagnosed with Lyme disease. You ask about the events surrounding their illness, their symptoms, and their medical history prior to being bitten, in order to study the spread of Lyme disease.

Advantages and disadvantages of cohort studies

Cohort studies are a strong research method, particularly in epidemiology, health, and medicine, but they are not without their disadvantages.

Advantages of cohort studies

Advantages of cohort studies include:

  • Cohort studies are better able to approach an estimation of causality than other types of observational studies. Due to their ability to establish temporality, multiple outcomes, and disease incidence over time, researchers are able to determine with more certainty that the exposure indeed preceded the outcome. This strengthens a claim for a cause-and-effect relationship between the variables of interest.
  • Due to their long nature, cohort studies are a particularly good choice for studying rare exposures, such as exposure to a new drug or an environmental toxin. Other research designs aren’t able to incorporate the breadth and depth of the impact as broadly as cohort studies do.
  • Because cohort studies usually rely on large groups of participants, they are better able to control for potentially confounding variables, such as age, gender identity, or socioeconomic status. Relatedly, the ability to use a sampling method that ensures a more representative sample of the population leads to findings that are typically much more generalizable, with higher internal validity and external validity.

Disadvantages of cohort studies

Disadvantages of cohort studies include:

  • Cohort studies can be extremely time-consuming and expensive to conduct due to their long and intense nature.
  • Cohort studies are at risk for biases inherent to long-term studies like attrition bias and survivorship bias, as participants are likely to drop out over time. Measurement errors like omitted variable bias and information bias can also confound your analysis, leading you to draw conclusions that may not be true.
  • Like many other experimental designs, cohort studies can raise questions regarding ethical considerations. This is particularly the case if the exposure of interest is harmful, or if there is no known treatment for it. Prior to beginning your research, it is critical to ensure that participation in your study is fully voluntary, informed, and as safe as it can be for your research subjects.

Frequently asked questions

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.
What is a closed cohort study?

A closed cohort study is a type of cohort study where all participants are selected at the beginning of the study, with no new participants added during any of the follow-up periods.

This approach is useful when the exposure being studied is rare, or when it isn’t practically or financially feasible to recruit new participants.

What is the difference between incidence and prevalence in a cohort study?

In a cohort study, the incidence refers to the number of new cases of a disease or health outcome that develop during the study period, while prevalence refers to the proportion of the population who have the disease or health outcome at a given point in time. Cohort studies are particularly useful for measuring incidence rates.

What is a dynamic cohort study?

A dynamic cohort study is a type of cohort study where the participants are not fixed at the start of the study. Instead, new participants can be added over time if they become eligible to participate. This approach is useful when the study population is expected to change over time.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

George, T. (2023, February 24). What Is a Cohort Study? | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/methodology/cohort-study/

Sources

Euser, A. M., Zoccali, C., Jager, K. J., & Dekker, F. W. (2009). Cohort Studies: Prospective versus Retrospective. Nephron Clinical Practice, 113(3), c214–c217. https://doi.org/10.1159/000235241

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Tegan George

Tegan is an American based in Amsterdam, with master's degrees in political science and education administration. While she is definitely a political scientist at heart, her experience working at universities led to a passion for making social science topics more approachable and exciting to students.