WorkLife-young family

Having a baby early? It might not be good for you later

Being employed is generally good for your health. That’s what a large body of research has shown over the years. But what about when you put having a family into the mix? That’s a question that Dr Anne McMunn at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL has been asking in a series of studies looking at the interplay between work-family life and health in middle age. Here she outlines her findings and explains why having children early may not be good for you.

When couples think about starting a family, they may make decisions around a host of concerns. Finances, careers, childcare all spring readily to mind as things that could crop up in discussions about when it might be best to have a child. Not many people will stop and think about how and when having a child might affect their health later on in life – but maybe they should.

Research to date has shown that combining paid work with family responsibilities is usually linked with better health outcomes, although existing research has a number of shortcomings: men are often excluded, health measures have tended to be self-reported rather than objective, few studies take account of the role health plays in whether or not people work, get married and have children in the first place, and, crucially, few studies look across the lifecourse at the timings of entry into parenthood.

Combining work and family life

Using the National Child Development Study, which is following the lives of 17 thousand people born in 1958, our research has looked at how they combined their work and family lives between the ages of 16 and 42 and what that meant for their health in their mid 40s.

The thinking behind the research was that those people with more stressful work-family lives (often characterised by having children very young, being unemployed, and not marrying or forming a long-term partnership) would go on to have physical signs or indicators of poor health such as high cholesterol and blood pressure, being overweight etc.

All the men and women in the study were ascribed one of 12 lifecourse types e.g. ‘Work, Later family’, ‘Later family, Work break’, ‘Teen parent’.

Table 1-1

Almost all men were in a group characterised by long-term full-time employment, with most (34%) entering family life later (the ‘Work, Later family’ group), with nearly as many entering family life earlier (the ‘Work, Earlier family’ group at 32%). Conversely fewer than half of women (47%) were in a group characterised by long-term full-time employment. The ‘Part-time work, Earlier Family’ was the most common group (18%) for women.

Similar proportions of men and women were in the ‘Work, Cohabitation, Later Parent’ group (7% and 5%, respectively), the ‘Work, Marriage, Non-Parent’ group (8% of men, 9% of women) and the ‘Work, No Family’ group (13% of men, 10% of women). Only 4% of women were in the ‘No Paid Work, Earlier Family’ group, and few men or women were in groups characterised by marital dissolution, teen parenthood or weak ties to work or family.

Early parenthood – poorer health

As we expected, those men and women who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later on enjoyed better health. Early parenthood, especially teen parenthood was clearly linked to poorer health, regardless of whether they were in paid work or in a stable long-term marriage.

For example, the waist circumference of teen parents was four inches larger, on average, than those who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later (fat accumulated around the waistline is known to be particularly risky for health). Groups who entered parenthood earlier had 10-18% more fat circulating in the blood and 2-8% less of the ‘good’ HDL cholesterol than those who were in full-time long-term employment, were married and had children later.

Teen parents tended to be less well educated, which accounted for some of the link. However, even those who had stable employment and marriages, but had children early, had poorer health.

It seems that for both men and women, having children early is linked with poor health later on, possibly as a result of chronic stress from parenting in straitened circumstances with fewer financial and emotional resources.

Less human and social capital

Authors of other studies showing links between early parenthood and health problems such as depression, heart disease and long term illnesses, speculate that younger parents have accumulated less human and social capital to cope with the stresses of parenting. It is also possible that those who are older when they become parents have had time to establish healthier behaviours such as exercise and healthy eating prior to starting their families, making it easier to maintain those behaviours through the busy parenting years.

There is need for further evidence on how timing of parenthood influences health and we are currently replicating this study with participants from the 1970 birth cohort.

In the meantime, perhaps those family planning discussions around finances, careers and childcare should incorporate an extra question? If we have a child now rather than later, how might it affect our health later on? It’s a question that will be of interest not just to prospective parents, but to all those concerned with improving the long term health and well-being of our society.

Work-family life courses and metabolic markers in mid-life: evidence from the British National Child Development Study is research by Anne McMunn, Rebecca E Lacey, Meena Kumari, Diana Worts, Peggy McDonough and Amanda Sacker.

Photo credit: Darren Johnson

 

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Are permanently sick people less sick nowadays?

Brexit aside, there have few topics more hotly contested in recently years than who should get incapacity benefits. The steady rise in the incapacity benefits bill over several decades led some to question whether greater numbers of people could actually be sick and whether this group is actually healthier, with less serious health problems, than had been the case in decades past. But what does research evidence tell us? Bola Akinwale from Public Health England and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies have looked at 30 years’ worth of data to see.

In the last 30 years of the 20th century, life expectancy for those aged 65 increased more than it had in the previous 70 years. A job market that had been almost completely dominated by men became dramatically more diverse. By the turn of the century, very few men aged 60-64 were in paid work, although that number has since increased.

On the face of it, many of these changes represent good news, but they have also created new challenges around funding pensions and how to keep increasing numbers of older people healthy and active for longer.

Our research looked at the proportions of men and women around State Pension Age who were employed, unemployed, permanently sick (those we might expect to claim incapacity benefits) or retired. We went on to look at their health immediately after retirement age to see if they had died prematurely or had a limiting long-term illness or disability.

When we compared the labour market positions of 60-64 year-old men in 1971 compared with 2001, we saw some big changes:

  • Working – 78.4 percent v 47.5 percent
  • Retired – 7.2 percent v 24.7 percent
  • Permanently sick – 9 percent v 19.7 percent

By 2001, women were almost as likely as men to describe themselves as retired after State Pension Age and 12.4 percent of 55-59 year-old women described themselves as permanently sick in 2001 compared with 3.4 percent back in 1971.

So we see the proportions of permanently sick men doubling over 30 years and quadrupling for women.

Across the same time frame, the risk of dying just before State Pension Age decreased substantially – by more than 60 percent for men and by more than 50 percent for women, irrespective of whether they are in work or permanently sick. In other words, both groups benefited equally from these changes – staying healthier and living longer than their counterparts 30 years previously.

Are sick people less sick nowadays?

 The answer is no and yes – it depends on the comparator.

To try to get to the bottom of this idea that people who are permanently sick are less sick than their historical predecessors, we compared the likelihood of them dying prematurely with that of their working peers.

On the one hand, if they were less sick, we would expect to see the gap between the chances of dying prematurely for these two groups get smaller over the 30-year period. We don’t see that.

Permanently sick men aged 65-69 were three times more likely to die prematurely than their working peers in 2001 and this was an increase on the 1971 figure. For women, the figure was between four and five times over the period we looked at.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this 30 year period brought about some remarkable changes in the working lives and general health of older people, including among permanently sick group. Their life expectancy has increased in line with other people of their age.

But despite these improvements in life expectancy among permanently sick people, compared with employed people their likelihood of dying has, if anything, slightly increased and certainly not decreased.

So, taken together, our research does not support the argument that the permanently sick have less serious health conditions nowadays than they used to.

A key plank of the Government’s policies for people who are unable to work due to illness is to try to support them back to work wherever possible. Our research shows that achieving this aim, requires careful consideration of the types of jobs and working environments that might be suitable for people with chronic illnesses.

If we don’t create enough jobs that older people with chronic people can sustain and thrive in, life expectancy gaps between those in work and those who leave the workforce prematurely due to ill-health may widen further.

Work, permanent sickness and mortality risk: a prospective cohort study of England and Wales, 1971-2006 is research by Bola Akinwale, Kevin Lynch, Richard Wiggins, Seeromanie Harding, Mel Bartley and David Blane. It made use of linked census and death records in the ONS Longitudinal Study.

Photo credit: ILO in Asia and the Pacific

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Does having a rotten job in middle age leave us depressed in retirement?

People’s working conditions have been high up the news agenda recently and not just in non European parts of the world either. Understandably, considerable concern has been expressed about the impact that low paid jobs with poor and uncertain conditions have on workers’ lives. But what are the impacts of poor or stressful working conditions and job uncertainty on people’s mental health further down the line once they stop working? Morten Wahrendorf from University of Düsseldorf in Germany and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse have carried out research across Europe and found that those with poor jobs and working conditions in mid life are considerably more likely to suffer with depression after they retire.

Right across Europe people are living longer – on the face of it – a good thing. Unfortunately, for many, that increased life expectancy is accompanied by extended periods of poor health or disability – both physical and mental. The consequences of this are deeply worrying for policy makers funding services to care for people, overstretched health professionals and, of course for people themselves and their families.

It’s really important, therefore, to get a better handle on what goes on in our lives before we retire that might be linked to this later poor health. If we can identify what might lie behind it, we are more likely to be able to make changes and put things in place that reduce the risk for future generations.

The research looked at the mental health of nearly 5000 men and 4000 women with an average age of around 70 in 13 European countries and then looked back at their working lives in mid life to see what picture might emerge.

Using information from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), we looked at how stressful their job had been both physically and mentally, how well rewarded and supported they felt, whether they had been laid off or had a period of unemployment. We used a special set of questions asked in the survey to identify whether or not the participants showed signs of depression.

Physically and mentally demanding work

More then a quarter of the men and a fifth of the women reported their job had been highly physically and/or highly mentally demanding. The proportion of women who worked in low-skilled jobs was lower among women compared with men (80 per cent women, 68 per cent men).

With regard to stressful conditions at work, 15 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women said they had had low levels of control at work. 20 per cent of men and 27 per cent of women said the rewards were low and 17 per cent of men and 20 per cent of women said they received low levels of social support.

When we linked their earlier working life to their mental health in retirement, both men and women who had previously worked in mentally stressful jobs were more likely to exhibit signs of depression later on. For men, the strongest links with depression were for those who reported having jobs with a low level of control, whilst for women it was jobs with low levels of social support.

Both men and women who had worked in poor quality jobs were considerably more likely to be depressed than their peers with good jobs. Unsurprisingly, those people who had been unexpectedly laid off from a job in mid life were also more likely to be depressed later. Surprisingly, though unemployment and a fragmented career were associated with depression in men only.

The results stayed strong even after taking account of the workers’ health and social circumstances before middle age.

Clear and robust link

The research reinforces a number of studies drawing a clear and robust link between poor mental health in later life and a disadvantaged working life in middle age, whether that be in terms of working environment or job uncertainty. What’s new here though is tracing that link over people’s lifecourse from middle age into retirement. The research also shows some important and interesting distinctions between men and women.

There is a clear message here too for policy makers, business and health professionals that mid-life is a critical period where appropriate interventions and employment-related policies, such as lifelong learning programmes, through programmes increasing job security, or even mindfulness training, could bring significant benefits to individuals and society more widely, especially in the undeniable context of us all living and working longer.

Working conditions in mid-life and mental health in older ages is research by Morten Wahrendorf, David Blane, Mel Bartley, Nico Dragano and Johanes Siegrist and is published in Advances in Life Course Research.

Photo credit: World Bank

 

 

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Work and family – how it affects our health

How our working and family lives affect our health as we get older is of increasing interest to us all. Researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies have used the 1958 Cohort Study to look at levels of inflammation (indicators of being at risk of illnesses such as heart disease) and and how people combine their work and family lives to see if any patterns emerge that could tell us more.

In this episode of the ICLS Podcast, Dr Rebecca Lacey explains the background and context of the research and what the team has found.

You can also listen to a policy seminar talk about the research.

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WorkLife-olderworker

Working longer: is it good for your health?

Across Europe we are all living and working longer. Many of us in the UK are working past state pension retirement age. But what sorts of jobs do older workers opt for and why and what does all this mean for our health, especially in the context of changes to the age at which we can collect our state pension?  In this policy presentation from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL, Professor David Blane looks at what these changes mean for our quality of life as we get older and the implications for those working in occupational health.

A full transcription of David Blane’s talk is also available on the ICLS website.

Photo credit: Scott Lewis

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How travelling to work can work for you

There can’t be too many commuters who aren’t now aware that ditching the car and walking to work is much better for them. Considerable evidence has shown that walkers and cyclists are likely to weigh less and be slimmer than their car commuting counterparts. What they may be less aware of is that ditching the car in favour of the bus, train or the tube could have nearly the same benefits. A programme of research by a team at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, UCL has been taking a closer look at the benefits of being an ‘active commuter’. As researcher Ellen Flint explains, the findings point to some clear ways forward, not just for individuals, but for policy makers too.

Physical inactivity and being sedentary for large parts of the day are a leading cause of obesity and premature death. In England alone something like two thirds of adults do not meet the recommended levels of daily exercise. At the same time there are growing numbers of people commuting to work. In England and Wales that figure is around 24 million people, 67% of whom take the car.

The time of life when most adults become obese is in middle age, with 50-65 year-olds less than half as likely as young adults aged 16-29 to use public transport, nearly half as likely to walk to and from work and two thirds less likely to get on their bikes. So it’s this age group that we have focused on in our programme of research looking at the relationship between active commuting and obesity in mid life.

To help us do this, we have used information from a long term household survey called Understanding Society and a large study called UK Biobank.

Public transport benefits

Our first piece of research used Understanding Society and showed us that not just walking or cycling to work but even catching the bus or the tube are all linked to lower body weight and body fat composition compared with those who get to work by car.

7,534 BMI and 7,424 percentage body fat measurements from men and women who took part in the survey were used in conjunction with information about journeys to work.

Men who commuted via public or active modes had BMI scores around 1 point lower than those who used private transport, equating to a difference in weight of 3kg (almost half a stone) for the average man.

Women who commuted via public or active transport had BMI scores around 0.7 points lower than their private transport using counterparts, equating to a difference in weight of 2.5kg (5.5lb) for the average woman.

When it came to body fat, men who actively travelled to work (walking, cycling or public transport) had body fat that was roughly one per cent point lower than those who commuted by car, confirming the picture seen when looking at BMI.

What’s important to note here is that these differences are larger than those seen in the majority of individually focused diet and physical activity interventions to prevent overweight and obesity.

Second study reinforces

In work just published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, we were able to use information from more than 70,000 men and 80,000 women aged 40-69.

More than 60% of these people commuted by car, with only 4 percent and 7 percent respectively reporting walking as their only method of commute and 4 percent and 2 percent cycling. Around one in five was an active commuter some or all of the time.

Except for those who mixed car and public transport, all other groups had significantly lower BMI and percentage body fat than those men and women who ONLY commuted by car.

The biggest differences were for cyclists and the results stayed strong even when we accounted for a wide range of other factors such as social and economic background, their general health and even whether or not they did exercise outside of their daily commute.

The men who cycled were around 5 kg lighter whilst women cyclists were on average nearly 4.5kg lighter than their car commuting counterparts.

Unsurprisingly, walking to work had the next biggest association with reduced obesity. Compared with their car commuting counterparts, men who walked to work were on average 3.0kg lighter; and women typically weighed 2.1kg less.

However, what was perhaps more interesting, and what also reinforced our interesting earlier findings from Understanding Society, was that even those who used a mixture of public transport and active methods of commuting still had significantly lower BMI and body fat percentage than those who commuted exclusively by car.

In fact, it was similar to those who only walked to work. Compared with car commuters, men and women who mixed public transport with some walking or cycling typically weighed 3.1kg and 2.0kg less, respectively.

Active commuting at heart of policy

Separately these two studies make interesting reading, but together they combine to make a powerful and growing body of evidence around the benefits of active commuting and do more than hint at potential interventions for policy makers.

There is now a clear case for the health benefits of active commuting to be taken into consideration by transport planners, town planners and urban designers.

Cities can be active by design and the more evidence that we have to confirm that people who commute actively really are lighter and have a healthier body composition, the more impetus there is for these health related outcomes to be at the heart of policy.

It is time to realise the untapped population health improvements potential of these big shifts we can make in how people travel to and from work.

Photo credit: Chris Rubberdragon

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WorkLife-youngmum

A question of inflammation

Inflammation can be good and bad for us. Find out more in this presentation from researcher Rebecca Lacey, who uses inflammatory markers in mid life to look at whether the way in which we combine our work and family lives early on affects our health later on.

The research,  presented at an ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies policy seminar, concludes that homemakers and people who have children early, particularly teen parents, are at greater risk of poor health in mid life and recommends increased support and opportunities for young parents.

Listen to Rebecca’s presentation and view the slides below.

Work, family and health – a question of inflammation? from Chris Garrington on Vimeo.

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Can unemployment kill – Podcast

Our first blog showcased recent research from the team at ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies about the links between long term unemployment and stress markers linked to killer diseases. If you were interested in that, you can also listen on Soundcloud to researcher Amanda Hughes discussing the research for the ICLS Podcast.

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Can unemployment kill?

At the height of the recent recession around 2.7 million people were unemployed, and youth unemployment accounted for nearly 40 per cent of that total. Given growing evidence that unemployment is linked to long term illness and increased mortality, we can expect health implications for those affected. In a week when unemployment rose for the first time in over a year, Amanda Hughes presents new evidence from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies on the links between unemployment and killer diseases such as heart disease.

In 1984 a study was published which had linked census data to mortality records and found that men unemployed in the week of the 1971 census were 36 per cent more likely to have since died than men of the same age who had been in work. Accounting for differences in social background only explained part of the excess, raising the question: can unemployment kill, and if so how?

That unemployment might damage health was not a new idea. Marie Jahoda’s research on unemployment in the 1930s had shown that the non-financial benefits of work, such as defining aspects of status and identity and providing regular social contact, are for many people crucial to mental wellbeing. And since job loss usually brings a sharp drop in income, it is intuitive that unemployment could affect physical health by reducing quality of diet or opportunities for exercise.

But there tends to be more scepticism as to whether serious physical illness or mortality could be causally influenced by the undoubtedly stressful experience of unemployment. Might those unemployed men have developed serious illness when employed, lost their jobs as a result, and then died from their illness? Or might their increased mortality simply be caused by unemployed people smoking and drinking more? In neither case could it be claimed that unemployment itself has caused any deaths.

New approach

Since the 1980s, the tools available to scientists researching the health impacts of social conditions have moved on considerably. One new approach involves molecules called ‘inflammatory markers’ which circulate in the bloodstream and appear to be influenced by stressful experiences.

Elevated concentrations have been found in the recently bereaved and caregivers; inflammatory markers are also typically higher for people of disadvantaged socioeconomic position as measured by income or occupational social class. Crucially, raised concentrations of these molecules are linked to atherosclerosis and predict heart disease, presenting a possible causal pathway between a stressful social environment and increased mortality.

It was for this reason that we wanted to see if two inflammatory markers – C-reactive protein and fibrinogen – were elevated in jobseekers compared to employed counterparts.

We used the Health Survey for England and Scottish Health Survey, annual government surveys used to track changes in the health of both countries’ populations. To isolate elevations in these molecules due to unemployment-related stress, we considered a number of additional factors beyond participants’ age and gender.

To rule out elevations due to serious illness predating job loss, we considered whether participants had a long-term illness of any type. To rule out elevations caused by disadvantaged socioeconomic position more generally, we took into account housing tenure and occupational social class from current or most recent job.

Finally, to test whether elevations might be explained by worse health-related behaviours of jobseekers, we took into account participants’ smoking, alcohol consumption and body mass index.

Stress markers

In our sample of over 23,000 men and women of working age, unemployed people had elevated circulating levels of both molecules even after consideration of these factors. These differences were moreover clinically relevant, since unemployed participants were 40 per cent more likely to have C-reactive protein over 3mg/L, the level at which cardiovascular risk becomes elevated.

Effects were not uniform across the population. Firstly, older jobseekers (48-64) were more affected than younger jobseekers. This might indicate that unemployment is more stressful for jobseekers facing age discrimination, or equipped with outdated skills.

Since older jobseekers will have accumulated more unemployment over their lifetimes than younger counterparts, it could alternatively indicate that long-term or repeated unemployment is especially damaging to this aspect of health.

Secondly, we found substantial differences in results by country, with much greater elevations in both molecules for jobseekers in Scotland than in England. Data from the Labour Force Survey and the British Household Panel Study show that during the years of data collection (1998-2010) unemployment was higher in Scotland than England, and unemployment spells on average longer, which suggests two possible explanations.

Firstly, the jobseekers in Scotland may have been unemployed for longer, or had more recent unemployment spells, than English counterparts. Secondly, unemployment could be more stressful in times and places where the background rate is higher, since jobseekers will rationally perceive their prospects for re-employment as worse.

Since these surveys only collect information from people at one point in time, it was not possible in this analysis to investigate effects in the context of people’s employment histories. But unpicking these explanations will be crucial if we are to better understand the conditions under which unemployment is most likely to damage health, and which groups are most at risk.

Crucially, given last week’s news of a 21,000 rise in unemployment for the first time in a year  to 1.7 million people, policy makers interested in the long term health of the population should not divert their gaze from its wider consequences.

Photo credit: Kate Hiscock

Further information

Amanda Hughes is a Senior Research Officer at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

Elevated inflammatory biomarkers during unemployment: modification by age and country in the UK is research by Amanda Hughes, Anne McMunn, Mel Bartley and Meena Kumari and is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

References

Unemployment and mortality in the OPCS Longitudinal study is research by K.A Moser, A.J Fox, and D.R. Jones, and is published in the Lancet.

Unemployment durations: evidence from the British Household Panel Survey is research by K. Long and is published in Economic & Labour Market Review.

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