Defining normal

Samuel Chu on the latest research out of the Faculty of Health Sciences

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I’d never have guessed I’d be spending my eighteenth birthday surrounded by three researchers from the University’s Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), asking them “am I normal?”

As it turns out, I did, and, at least according to the metrics considered by the 1000 Norms Project, I am.

The project, led by Professor Josh Burns and PhD candidates Jennifer Baldwin and Marnee McKay from the FHS, sought to profile the physical capabilities of 1000 Australians aged 3 to 101. After four years of data collection, it has just wrapped up. The results are in.

But why bother running 1000 participants through 101 separate physical tests in the first place? The project was inspired by the 1000 Genomes Project at Cambridge (which catalogued the DNA of 1000 people to identify variations and better diagnose genetic diseases), and aimed to get a clearer picture of what constitutes “normal” in a range of physical measures, so that nerve and musculoskeletal disorders can be diagnosed earlier, and with greater certainty.

As Baldwin emphasised, the project wasn’t about finding average leg length or nostril circumference for comparison’s sake – all of the 101 tests were functional, like the six-minute walk test (a widely-used mobility assessment) and the nine-hole peg test (a dexterity test).

As performance in these tests varies with age and sex, the researchers had to recruit participants from all different stages of the lifespan. This proved troublesome with some of the younger groups – three year-olds, for instance, tended to focus on the project’s Tiny Teddy incentives, rather than the task at hand.

After the usual research headaches (such as cost blow-outs and difficulty sourcing the last few participants) and after collecting more than a million discreet measurements, the dataset has been analysed.

Burns generously provided a cheat sheet of the project’s key findings (see below). To summarise, the researchers have been successful in achieving their aim, that is, obtaining a catalogue of physical ability across a variety of Australians to inform clinical practice.

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As with most research, the more interesting questions are those incidental to the focus of the study. A new research question has emerged for each of the researchers – for Burns, it’s looking at norms longitudinally, i.e. participants’ performance in the same test across time, to “truly understand what normal is”; for Baldwin, it’s a deeper exploration of the inverse relationship between self-reported happiness and age; and for McKay, it’s how the functional measures assessed by the study translate into keeping the elderly on their feet.

I am as anti-USyd-PR as much as the next student. But, all too often, we forget that beyond student politics, beyond clubs and societies and beyond grades, the very purpose of universities is to expand the forefront of human knowledge, and to inform and improve society. In other words, to conduct research and makes use of the findings. The 1000 Norms team at the FHS are doing a great job of just that.