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Wellbeing in older age

What social contexts and experiences in childhood and early adulthood promote wellbeing in later life? And does wellbeing protect against functional ageing?  

Research programme: Wellbeing in older age (2013-2018)

Programme leader: Dr Mai Stafford

PhD Students: Frances Harkness, Aradhna Kaushal (completed), Ula Tymoszuk

Other LHA scientists: Dr Rachel Cooper, Professor Rebecca HardyProfessor Diana KuhProfessor Marcus Richards, Dr Theodore Cosco, Dr Natasha Wood

Healthy ageing requires good objective function physically, cognitively, and socially and having a positive state of mind. The wellbeing programme aimed to describe social and psychological wellbeing in older age, to identify lifetime experiences that contribute to an older person’s wellbeing, and to understand how wellbeing relates to physical, mental and cardiovascular ageing outcomes. Although many studies have shown socially integrated people have increased likelihood of survival and lower morbidity risk, social integration is not yet widely considered in policies and programmes addressing the lifestyle determinants of health. This programme aimed to contribute to the evidence base in better describing the types of social integration that appear to be beneficial for health and identifying groups that were at greatest risk of low social integration.

The two main strands of research within this programme were:

  • Social integration and wellbeing across the life course
  • Lifetime social integration and healthy biological ageing

Main objectives

We aimed to address questions such as:

Do early experiences have consequences for social integration and wellbeing in later life? How does social integration change through middle and older age and does this differ across groups defined by gender, socioeconomic position, birth cohort?

Are there long-term health consequences of childhood social and psychosocial adversities? Do supportive social relationships afford any protection against the long-term health consequences of disadvantaged childhoods? Is social integration related to healthy ageing and health trajectories through middle and older age?

Key Publications

Stafford M, Cooper R, Cadar D, Carr E, Murray E, Richards M, Stansfeld S, Zaninotto P, Head J, Kuh D. Physical and cognitive capability in mid-adulthood as determinants of retirement and extended working life in a British cohort study. Scand J Work Environ Health. 2016 Aug 30
Many industrialized countries are seeking to extend working lives. This study examined possible links between physical and cognitive capability in mid-adulthood and work in late adulthood. It is novel in using performance-based as well as self-reported measures of physical capability.

For more information on our research on extending working lives, please see

Stafford M, Deeg D, Kuh D. Educational attainment and women’s mastery in midlife: findings from a British Birth Cohort Study. Int J Aging Hum Dev. 2016;82(4):314-35.
This study identifies childhood as well as adult correlates of midlife mastery in over 1,000 women.  It shows that low education was associated with high mastery skills, partly explained by lower mastery among those with fathers in the most and least advantaged occupations and partly explained by lower ambitions among the most educated. It adds to the mounting evidence that higher mastery is not universally found among those with higher socioeconomic position.

Cosco TD, Kaushal A, Hardy R, Richards M, Kuh D, Stafford M. Operationalising resilience in longitudinal studies: a systematic review of methodological approaches. J Epidemiol Community Health. forthcoming.
This review of how resilience (that is the process of positively adapting to adversity) has been tested empirically in longitudinal studies of ageing. It focuses on the methods used and the adversity-adaptation scenarios that have been investigated.

Stafford M, Kuh D, Gale CR, Mishra G, Richards M. Parent-child relationships and offspring’s positive mental wellbeing from adolescence to early older age. J Pos Psych. 2016;11(3):326-7.
This paper indicates that those who recall a poor quality relationship with their parent in the first sixteen years of their life had low mental wellbeing in adolescence, mid-adulthood and right into older age. In particular, having a parent who was psychologically controlling was associated with poor mental wellbeing. On the other hand, recalling a caring and warm relationship with one’s parents was linked to better wellbeing. There was considerable media interest in this paper, partly because previous studies of parental bonding have not had such a long follow-up.

Stafford M, Gardner M, Kumari M, Kuh D, Ben-Shlomo Y. Social isolation and diurnal cortisol patterns in an ageing cohort. Psychoneuroendocrinology 2013;38(11):2737-45.
Social isolation may be an unwanted and stressful experience which disrupts functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis. Using repeat exposure data, this study shows that newly living alone and recent widowhood were associated with higher night time cortisol and flatter diurnal slope. These cortisol patterns have previously been linked to higher mortality and morbidity risk.