Background: Little is known about the relationship between early life factors and survey response in epidemiological studies of adults.
Methods: The Children of the 1950s cohort is composed of 12,150 children (boys 51.7%) born in Aberdeen 1950-56 and in primary schools in the city in 1962. Information on birth weight, gestational age, growth, behaviour and socio-economic position at birth and in childhood were obtained from contemporaneous records. Cognitive test scores at ages 7,9 and 11 years were also available from school records. The outcome was response to a postal questionnaire sent (2001-2003) to surviving cohort members in middle age.
Results: Of 11,282 potentially mailed subjects, 7,183 (63.7%) returned questionnaires. Response rates were highest among females, and those whose parents were married at birth, were in a non-manual social class at birth or in childhood, had fewer siblings, were taller and heavier in childhood for their age and had lower Rutter B behavioural scores. Childhood cognitive test scores at every age were strongly and positively related to the response rate to a postal questionnaire independently of other early life factors monotonically across the entire range of test scores. Those in the bottom fifth at age 11 had a response rate of 49% while those in the top fifth 75%.
Conclusion: The strength and consistency of the association of childhood cognition with questionnaire response rate in middle age is surprisingly large. It suggests that childhood cognition across the entire normal range is a powerful influence on the complex set of later behaviours that comprise questionnaire response. The extent of possible response bias in epidemiological studies of the associations between childhood characteristics (particularly those related to cognition) and later health is probably larger than is generally realised, at least in situations where the survey instrument is a postal questionnaire.