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What is a cross-sectional study?

A cross-sectional study is a type of study in which data from a population or group of individuals at a specific point in time is analyzed.  

What is prevalence in a cross-sectional study? 

Cross-sectional studies help measure prevalence of a particular disease. Prevalence is the proportion of individuals in a population with a particular disease. Both old and new cases of the disease are counted in prevalence. This is different from incidence, which only tracks the frequency of new cases of a disease. The measure of prevalence helps scientists understand the impact of a disease on the healthcare system and helps with making proper diagnoses. The measure of incidence helps scientists measure how quickly a disease occurs in the population or the effectiveness of a vaccine or prevention measure.  

What is the purpose of a cross-sectional study? 

Cross-sectional studies can be useful for public health monitoring and planning. They are considered observational because there is no intervention applied by researchers. These studies help researchers describe the prevalence (or number of cases) of a disease and analyze risk factors of a particular disease. In cross-sectional studies, the goal is to count all cases (new and old) of a specific disease at the same point in time. In addition, the studies may also examine potential risk factors for that disease. For example, a study may survey adults asking if they have lung cancer and if they have ever smoked cigarettes to examine if smoking could be considered a risk factor for lung cancer. Common examples of cross-sectional studies include nutrition census surveys, such as the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). 

What are strengths and limitations of a cross-sectional study? 

Cross-sectional studies are desirable because they are rather quick and inexpensive to conduct. They usually involve surveying individuals, which is a rather inexpensive and quick method of data collection. Data is only collected once at one point in time, which makes data collection quicker. A large limitation of the cross-sectional study is that it cannot prove what causes something to happen. Therefore, a strong association between a risk factor and a disease does not equate to the risk factor causing the disease. Further analytical studies are needed to prove causation. Cross-sectional studies can use associations between risk factors and disease to generate hypotheses for analytical research studies.

Learn more about Cross-Sectional Study:

Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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