Cohort Study


A study design where one or more samples (called cohorts) are followed prospectively and subsequent status evaluations with respect to a disease or outcome are conducted to determine which initial participants exposure characteristics (risk factors) are associated with it. As the study is conducted, outcome from participants in each cohort is measured and relationships with specific characteristics determined


  • Subjects in cohorts can be matched, which limits the influence of confounding variables
  • Standardization of criteria/outcome is possible
  • Easier and cheaper than a randomized controlled trial (RCT)


  • Cohorts can be difficult to identify due to confounding variables
  • No randomization, which means that imbalances in patient characteristics could exist
  • Blinding/masking is difficult
  • Outcome of interest could take time to occur

Design pitfalls to look out for

The cohorts need to be chosen from separate, but similar, populations.

How many differences are there between the control cohort and the experiment cohort? Will those differences cloud the study outcomes?

Fictitious Example

A cohort study was designed to assess the impact of sun exposure on skin damage in beach volleyball players. During a weekend tournament, players from one team wore waterproof, SPF 35 sunscreen, while players from the other team did not wear any sunscreen. At the end of the volleyball tournament players' skin from both teams was analyzed for texture, sun damage, and burns. Comparisons of skin damage were then made based on the use of sunscreen. The analysis showed a significant difference between the cohorts in terms of the skin damage.

Real-life Examples

Hoepner, L., Whyatt, R., Widen, E., Hassoun, A., Oberfield, S., Mueller, N., ... Rundle, A. (2016). Bisphenol A and Adiposity in an Inner-City Birth Cohort. Environmental Health Perspectives, 124(10), 1644-1650.

This longitudinal cohort study looked at whether exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) early in life affects obesity levels in children later in life. Positive associations were found between prenatal BPA concentrations in urine and increased fat mass index, percent body fat, and waist circumference at age seven.

Lao, X., Liu, X., Deng, H., Chan, T., Ho, K., Wang, F., ... Yeoh, E. (2018). Sleep Quality, Sleep Duration, and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Prospective Cohort Study With 60,586 Adults. Journal Of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 14(1), 109-117.

This prospective cohort study explored "the joint effects of sleep quality and sleep duration on the development of coronary heart disease." The study included 60,586 participants and an association was shown between increased risk of coronary heart disease and individuals who experienced short sleep duration and poor sleep quality. Long sleep duration did not demonstrate a significant association.

Related Formulas

Related Terms


Confounding Variables

Population Bias/Volunteer Bias

Prospective Study

Now test yourself!

1. In a cohort study, an exposure is assessed and then participants are followed prospectively to observe whether they develop the outcome.

a) True
b) False

2. Cohort Studies generally look at which of the following?

a) Determining the sensitivity and specificity of diagnostic methods
b) Identifying patient characteristics or risk factors associated with a disease or outcome
c) Variations among the clinical manifestations of patients with a disease
d) The impact of blinding or masking a study population