Tag Archives: Heart Disease

Would reducing social inequality lead to more years of healthy life?

Across Europe, there’s good news for older people – life expectancy is on the rise and levels of disability among older people are falling. But there are concerns that a longer life may not be a better life for all. So who benefits from increased life expectancy?  Jenny Head and colleagues from the IDEAR network find those with a higher occupational status can expect the greatest number of years of healthy, disease-free life.

We know from lots of studies that there are big differences in life expectancy between different social groups. And we know that those in higher social positions tend to benefit more from that rise in healthy life expectancy.

But, given that many governments expect people to extend their working lives, we specifically need to know about the different expectations of people in different occupational positions – which is slightly different.

Together with colleagues in the IDEAR networK, we looked at what those from different occupational backgrounds might expect in later life – to be precise, how many years with good health can they expect to enjoy between the ages of 50 and 75?

The data came from four cohort studies in England, Finland, France and Sweden.

We were able to look at data from 9,213 people in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing from 2002 onwards. We also had information on 42,978 people who took part in the Finnish Public Sector study between 1997 and 2013. In France, we used the GAZEL Cohort Study, which gathered information from 18,263 people working for the national utility company from 1989 onwards. And in Sweden, we looked at a sample of 8,186 people who responded to the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health between 2003 and 2014.

Health measures

We used two health measures: whether participants rated their own health as good or poor, and whether they had ever been diagnosed with heart disease, stroke, chronic lung disease, cancer or diabetes.

In all the cohorts, people in lower occupational positions could expect fewer years of life than those in higher occupational positions – and they could expect to spend fewer of those remaining years in good health.

So in England, both men and women in high-grade occupations could expect more than four years’ extra healthy life when compared with men and women in lower-grade occupations. In Finland that gap was wider, with those in high-grade jobs expecting at least six and a half years more good health. In France the difference was around two and a half years, while Sweden had the smallest gap of a little more than two years.

This pattern was consistent across the four countries and for both men and women. There were also socioeconomic inequalities in chronic disease-free life expectancy, although these differences were less marked than for self-rated health.

Better understanding

Why does this matter? A better understanding of the future health of older people is crucial to policy-makers because it affects public expenditure on income, health and long-term care. It also matters because governments want to extend working lives and increase State Pension ages, and in order to do that they need older workers to stay healthy.

Our results indicate that those in lower socioeconomic positions may be doubly disadvantaged because they have worse health but may also need to work longer for financial reasons. To achieve extended working lives for all, policy-makers will need to find ways of reducing those social class differences in health expectancies.

Socioeconomic differences in healthy and disease-free life expectancy between ages 50 and 75: a multi-cohort study, by  Jenny Head, Holendro Singh Chungkham , Martin Hyde, Paola Zaninotto, Kristina Alexanderson, Sari Stenholm, Paula Salo, Mika Kivimäki, Marcel Goldberg, Marie Zins, Jussi Vahtera and Hugo Westerlund, is published in the European Journal of Public Health.

 

Working with a long-term illness – does employment status make a difference?

Across the developed world, a growing share of the population suffers from chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or heart problems – in the EU, around 45 per cent of those aged 55-64 had such a disease in 2015. And that affects their ability to work: just half of those with chronic illnesses are employed, compared to three quarters of those without. But how do the self-employed cope with such conditions, when compared with those in employment? Maria Fleischmann and colleagues from the RenEWL project find these differences in work status can make a major difference.

We know that when people become chronically ill, changes in their working conditions can help them to continue working. And we also know that good working conditions – being able to control how you use your time and how you do your job, whether you make the decisions and whether you feel valued, for instance – can help all of us to stay in paid work for longer.

And of course, if you become ill you’re more likely to feel the need to take time off or maybe to give up work altogether. We wanted to compare how the employed and the self-employed adjust their working conditions when facing a diagnosis of chronic disease.

Existing research tells us that many older people work for employers, and have to ask for their approval when it comes to making adjustments to their working conditions. The self-employed, meanwhile, are much more able to make their own decisions and tend to feel they have more control over their working lives.

We looked at people’s ability to control their work: physical demands, working hours, psychological demands such as how fast they had to work, and social aspects such as whether they felt valued.

And we had a great source of data for this – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a total of almost 9,000 over-50s since 2002.

From that group we were able to find and study 1389 participants who reported no chronic diseases when they were interviewed in 2004-5 – the second wave of interviews – and who were in work.  We were then able to look at what happened to them before the seventh wave of interviews, in 2013-14.

A little over 40 per cent of our sample were in managerial or professional occupations, a quarter in intermediate occupations, and almost 30 per cent in routine and manual occupations.

After diagnosis

At each interview, respondents were asked whether they had been diagnosed by a doctor with lung disease, asthma, arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes or high blood sugar, stroke or heart problems.

During the study period 510 of the 1389 sample members were newly diagnosed with one of those conditions. We were able to look at how they fared at work for four years after that, and we found some striking differences between how the employed and the self-employed seemed to have been treated.

The physical demands of our participants’ jobs were pretty similar before their diagnosis, for instance. But afterwards significant numbers of those who were employed said that those demands had actually increased when they were diagnosed. The self-employed, meanwhile, told us the opposite had happened to them – they reported significantly lower physical demands at work immediately after diagnosis. This effect continued for some time, though it grew less pronounced.

How could that be? We think maybe the increase in physical demands among the employed could be due to perception – similar demands might be perceived as more strenuous by the chronically ill. The self-employed, meanwhile, have more freedom to adjust those demands when they feel they need to.

The self-employed reported that their working hours dropped by an average of 2.8 hours per week on diagnosis, while those who were employed did not see a change. This effect was not statistically significant, though.

Employees found that their level of autonomy at work also dropped marginally, while for the self-employed there was no significant change. We did not find any major changes in psychological or social conditions in either group.

So, what did we learn? Essentially, that improvements in working conditions after diagnosis of chronic illness were restricted to the self-employed. So employers may need to ask themselves some hard questions – do they want to hold on to workers who become unwell? If they do, then they should consider the levels of flexibility they offer, and they should think about making adjustments for those workers if they don’t want to lose them.

In an ageing society, older people are expected to work ever longer and therefore to remain at work even when they begin to suffer from health problems. Our findings should also encourage policy-makers and governments to think about how chronically ill older adults are treated at work.

Changes in autonomy, job demands and working hours after diagnosis of chronic disease: a comparison of employed and self-employed older persons using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA)by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Baowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Stephen A Stansfeld, Mai Stafford and Jenny Head, is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

 

Work stress and ill health – what’s the link?

Lots of studies have suggested stress can be a cause of ill health – and that leads to people ceasing to work before they reach retirement age. But most have offered only a snapshot on the issue. Now a new analysis of data from a major panel study by José Ignacio CuitúnCoronado and Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester has shed new light on how work stress can affect an employee’s health over a longer period.

Many animals have the ability to adapt to environmental changes and pressures so that they’re better prepared the next time they happen. Bears can put on fat as winter approaches, for instance, to help them stave off hunger and stay warm.

And human beings can do this too. Stressful situations trigger chemical responses which can help to give us extra resources when things are tough. Our neuroendocrine systems, for instance, trigger hormonal responses which enhance our physical performance when we need it most.

But these valuable systems can have a downside. In our research, we wanted to look at how repeated exposure to stressful situations might contribute to health problems, particularly in people nearing the end of their working lives. We call this stress-induced effect ‘Allostatic Load’ – the wear and tear” on the body that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress because of fluctuating hormonal responses.

Given that many governments are looking for ways to extend working lives, there’s particular interest in finding out how stress can affect the health of older workers.We were able to tap into a rich source of information – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a representative sample of almost 10,000 over50s since 2002.

These participants have been interviewed regularly and one of the things they’ve been asked to report is whether they’ve experienced a sense of imbalance between the effort they put into their jobs and the rewards they get out.

Health testing

This gave us a sample of 2663 older adults, all over 50 and living in England, who’d reported these feelings at least once and who’d been assessed as having had an adverse reaction to them. We wanted to know whether repeated episodes had a bigger effect than just one, and whether the effect would be just as strong for past episodes as it was for more recent ones.

Between 2004-5 and 2014-16 the group were asked about stress at work, but they also underwent physical tests to see how the various systems in their bodies were bearing up.

They were visited by nurses who carried out a battery of tests including taking hair samples to assess levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, carrying out blood pressure checks to provide information on their cardio-vascular systems, white blood cell counts to assess their immune systems and cholesterol checks on their metabolic systems. Participants also had measurements taken of their waist to height ratios – a good indicator of coronary heart disease risk factors.

Overall, we found the more occasions of work-stress a participant had reported, the greater their ‘Allostatic Load’ index – that is, the greater the amount of biological wear and tear. Moreover, the evidence suggests that employees who had experienced stress more recently (towards the end of their working career)had higher levels of health risk when compared to those who had experienced it earlier in their careers.

This suggests there is an association between repeated reports of stress at work and biological stress mechanisms, which in turn could lead to stress-related disorders such as coronary heart disease, type-2 diabetes or depression. This also suggests that previous cross-sectional studies which reported small or inconsistent associations may have suffered because they were only measuring one effect at one time.

Work-related stress is one of the reasons for labour market exit – and our findings would suggest that earlier, snapshot studies may have underestimated the true effect of work-related stress on health over a lifetime.

As this is an observational study, it is not possible tomake any causal claims. Also, there may be other factors that we have not taken into account that may explain the association between stress and disease risk. For example, sleep problems may be relevant – though they may also be part of the journey from stress to ill-health.

But equally it is possible that cumulative exposure to work stress is resulting in damage to employees’ physical health, which is then leading to disability and an early exit from the world of work. So, if we want to extend working lives then reducing work-related stress could be one of the keys to achieving that goal.

Allostatic Load and Effort-Reward Imbalance: Associations over the Working-Career, by José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado, Tarani Chandola and Andrew Steptoe, is published in the International Journal of
Environmental Reasearch and Public Health
.

A question of support: working longer and what works

As more of us work for longer, it’s important to recognise the needs of older workers: and that includes the fact that as we age we are more likely to suffer from long-term illnesses. To what extent do our working conditions affect our decisions about whether or not to continue in a job despite having a chronic disease? Maria Fleischmann, research associate in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, has been asking what might help to prolong working life for older people. Could factors such as having supportive colleagues and managers, or a clear understanding of who does what, make a difference?

There is strong evidence that people with long-term illnesses leave work early. While three quarters of healthy European 50-somethings have jobs, the figure from those with chronic disease is much lower. Among those with one condition such as diabetes or heart disease, the employment level is around 70 per cent – and for those with two or more that drops to around 50 per cent. Conversely, those who are able to stay well are significantly more likely to continue working beyond pensionable age.

As our working lives grow longer, it’s important to acknowledge that older workers with chronic diseases may have different needs from those who are well – they may not be able to work such long hours, for instance.

So, what are the factors that can make a difference? We know, for instance, that people are likely to remain in work for longer if they have a high level of control over their own hours. Shift workers, on the other hand, are more likely both to become unwell and to leave work early.

Deciding to stay on at work

But what about the factors that are harder to see? What about a worker’s sense of his or her own job stability, or of how harmonious the relationships are between co-workers? Does it help if an employee feels he or she generally knows who does what, or how to respond to a given situation? These types of factors – collectively known as ‘psychosocial factors’ – are also believed to affect peoples’ decisions about whether to stay on at work.

We used data from the Whitehall II study, which has been following the lives, work histories and health experiences of just over 10,000 London-based civil servants since the mid-1980s, when they were all aged 35-55. We looked at the participants in mid-life, around 14 years before retirement age, to see how factors such as levels of autonomy and of support from supervisors or co-workers might affect their decisions if they became ill with diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke or malignant cancer.

And we found that while good ‘psycho-social’ working conditions were helpful generally in supporting workers to stay on in their jobs, they didn’t appear to make any extra difference for those who became ill.

The participants in the Whitehall II study were asked questions such as: ‘Do you have to do the same thing over and over again?’ and ‘Do you have a choice in deciding how to do your work?’ They were also asked whether they felt they had good support from colleagues and superiors and how demanding they felt their job was. They were also asked to describe their level of education, their mental health and whether they had a partner who worked.

We were able to use their answers to assess whether these factors made a difference when they developed illnesses later in life.

Chronic illness

We could see that six out of 10 participants left work between the first phase of the study in 1985 and the last one used for this study, in 2007-9. During the same period the proportion suffering from chronic illness had increased from less than two per cent to almost 30 per cent.

So why had they left, and how might those ‘psychosocial’ working conditions have affected those decisions?

Among the whole group of participants, we found clear evidence that those who felt they had reasons to be happy in their work were more likely to stay on. Specifically, those who felt they were using a wide range of job skills – known as skill discretion – and those who felt they had good social support at work were more likely to stay on for longer.

However, we did not find evidence that those ‘psychosocial’ factors would make more of a difference in whether or not a worker stayed on if he or she were chronically unwell. Or rather, good working conditions were equally important for workers both ill and well.

So, we know that good social and psychological conditions at work are likely to be helpful in keeping employees at work as their careers near their end. And we know that chronic illness is a major reason why people leave work early. But from our study, we cannot say that such good working practices will be a particular deciding factor for those who become unwell.

How and why people leave work

There were some interesting factors in our results: first, we were able to look at the different ways in which people left their jobs, and the reasons why they did so. So those who used a wide range of skills had a reduced risk of leaving work earlier through retirement or ill-health, but this was not related to the risk of leaving work earlier through unemployment; while those who had good social support had a reduced risk of leaving earlier through ill health or unemployment, but not so much when we looked at leaving earlier through retirement.

And while previous studies had tended to measure working conditions at the time of leaving, ours looked at those conditions several years beforehand.

There is certainly scope for more detailed research on this issue – and there is plenty of reason for both researchers and policy advisors to continue to focus on how employers can help chronically ill workers to stay in their jobs.

Can favourable psychosocial working conditions in midlife moderate the risk of work exit for chronically ill workers? A 20-year follow-up of the Whitehall II study is research by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Stephen A Stansfeld, Baowen Xue and Jenny Head. It is published in the BMJ Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and is part of the renEWL project on Extended Working Lives.

Out of work and overweight: Think again.

There’s a widely held preconception that people who are out of work are overweight, perpetuated by the media and, indeed, reinforced by some academic studies. But recent robust evidence throws a whole new light on things and indicates that unemployed people are in fact much more likely to be underweight, and less likely to be overweight, than their peers who have not recently been unemployed. Amanda Hughes from the Institute for Social and Economic Research explains how she came to question narratives about benefit claimants being lazy and overweight and go on to undertake research she believes provides a more accurate picture.

While I was doing my PhD, I volunteered at a foodbank, and noticed that there were more people coming in who were painfully thin than too heavy. Some had not eaten that day or the day before. Others had walked for two hours to get there, because paying for a return bus journey was out of the question.

Of course, not all people who are out of work turn to food banks, and not all people who turn to foodbanks are unemployed. But that experience got me thinking: have researchers and public health officials been so concerned with obesity that they have missed a crucial part of the story? If weight loss or weight gain can occur during unemployment depending on personal circumstances, might there be an overlooked ‘U-shaped’ association of unemployment and body weight, with excess obesity and excess underweight among jobseekers?

We know that risk of dying is higher for jobseekers than for employed peers, and it is often assumed that increased overweight and obesity among jobseekers plays a role. But studies on the relationship of unemployment and body weight have been inconclusive; some document weight gain with unemployment, but others suggest weight loss. However, previous studies have compared only average effects – average change in body weight following job loss, or average differences between unemployed people and controls, and may have missed a more complicated ‘U-shaped’ association.

Working age BMI

Using Understanding Society, a longitudinal, nationally representative survey of more than 40,000 UK households, my colleague Meena Kumari and I were able to look at the BMI (body mass index) of 10,737 working-age adults between 2010 and 2012.

What was different about our study, was that we did not assume unemployment would impact BMI in the same direction for everyone. Rather, we allowed for a simultaneously raised risk among jobseekers of both underweight and obesity, by comparing the probabilities of being underweight, overweight, and obese between current jobseekers, recent jobseekers, and people who had not been unemployed since the start of the survey (the control group). To isolate the impact of unemployment itself, we took into account other factors such as demographics, chronic health conditions and mental health, smoking and physical activity.

A small proportion (0.7 per cent) of the people in our study who were employed were classed as underweight (i.e. had a BMI below 18.5). But for those in our sample who were unemployed, the proportion shot up to almost 4 per cent. This pattern remained when we took into account factors such as their education, gender, smoking, overall health, physical activity and alcohol consumption.

Certain groups were especially at risk: there were more extreme effects for longer-term unemployed people, for men, and people from lower-income households, suggesting household reserves or the support of family members may act as a sort of buffer against weight-loss effects. At the same time, currently unemployed people were much less likely to be overweight than peers who had not recently been unemployed (29 per cent v 40 per cent).

We did find that unemployed people were more likely to be obese, perhaps suggesting changes in dietary quality following unemployment towards energy-dense but nutrient-poor foods. However, this was only the case for non-smokers, which might reflect competing priorities between tobacco, food and other essentials for smokers on severely restricted budgets.

Quantitative evidence

Together, these results point to a complex picture in which jobseekers, depending on the complexities of individual lives, are at increased risk of both underweight and obesity, each with their own associated health risks.

The elevated underweight and reduced overweight among current jobseekers are quantitative evidence that many unemployed people are not eating enough in simple caloric terms. Despite the political importance of this question, evidence of this effect has so far been fairly anecdotal.

Our results make an important contribution to research trying to explain the increased risk of chronic illness and mortality for unemployed people – suggesting that, at least in contemporary Britain, being underweight may contribute to that much more than previously realised.

At the very least, I hope our evidence will be used to challenge preconceptions and debunk myths about unemployment. It has implications for the way politicians, journalists and the wider public perceive unemployment, and for anyone concerned with the health effects of being out of work.

Unemployment, underweight and obesity: Findings from Understanding Society is research by Amanda Hughes and Meena Kumari at the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, and published in the journal Preventive Health.

You can also read an article about this research in The Guardian.

Photo credit: At Work in the Capital Area Foodbank Warehouse, Geoff Livingston

Frailty: what is the connection with our working lives?

People are living longer, and the number of over-65s is expected to reach around one in four of the UK population by 2050. But is retirement a golden age, or will we be dogged by poor health? Wentian Lu from University College London and colleagues investigated how our working pattern throughout our lives affects our health after we retire, and found interesting differences between men and women.

Government policies are focused on extending our working lives, and record numbers of people are now working beyond state pension age. But what effect is it having on our health?

The UK government’s former older workers champion, and pensions expert, Dr Ros Altmann argues that raising the state pension age is a blunt instrument for managing old-age support, which could compound existing social and health inequalities.

With people being expected to work for longer, it is critical to understand whether and how people’s working lives affect their later life health.

A recent study led by colleague Dr Giorgio Di Gessa found no significant health benefits from working beyond state pension age, once social background, previous health and employment histories were taken into account.

Our investigation was the first in England to focus on the impact of earlier working patterns on health in later life.

We used information on more than 1,600 men and nearly 2,800 women from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Health-related information on a range of things such as chronic conditions, pain, depression, heart disease, falls, fractures and joint replacement was used to develop a frailty index.

Using detailed work histories between the ages of 16 and 64 for men (16 and 59 for women), they were divided into groups which ranged from ‘full-time employment throughout’ to ‘unemployed throughout’. For men, we considered those who left work early, at either 60 or 49 years, and those who started work late (e.g because they went to University or spent time gaining other qualifications) and retired at 60.

For women’s employment histories, we also took account of part-time working, long and short career breaks, family care, and those who only had occasional work and retired early.

Frailty over time

The study confirmed that frailty increased with age, accelerating after 65 for women and 70 for men.

The findings showed that women who took a short break for family care and then worked part-time until they were 59 had better health at retirement age than those who were mostly in full-time work. Experiencing long career breaks or only working occasionally also appeared to be more detrimental for women’s health. This finding supports the importance of work-life balance for women’s health in later life.

Women who returned to work part-time after a short career break were healthier than those who went from family care to full-time work. If further studies confirm this result, it would indicate that working part-time while their children are young can have long-term positive benefits for women’s health. The key to maintaining the long-term health of today’s generation of working mothers will be to promote flexible working policies, such as flexible start and finish times, allowing women to balance work and childcare.

Consistent with previous studies, our investigation found that women who have never worked tend to have poorer health than those who worked full-time until the age of 60. What was more surprising was that women who never worked experienced a slower decline in their health beyond the age of 60, even when social background and health-affecting behaviours such as smoking and drinking were taken into account.

Early retirement

Men who retired early at either 49 or 60 had poorer health than those who worked until they were 65. However, leaving paid employment before the age of 65 slowed down the progress of poor health in later life.

This supports the findings of previous studies which show that the burden of ill-health is substantially relieved by early retirement. With Government policies encouraging older people to work longer, our research lends further weight to concerns that this may not be good for those already suffering poor health.

Another unexpected finding was that men who started working later in life and retired at around 60, who tended to be those more highly educated and with greater social advantage, actually experienced more rapid declines in health after the age of 65 than those who worked full-time from an earlier age and retired early. This was a small group, so further research is needed to explore this in more depth.

Despite limitations imposed by some of our employment history groups being quite small, as well as possible biases coming from participants’ subjective reporting of health issues, our findings offer important pointers for developing effective strategies to improve health for older people in the UK.

If, as Dr Altmann suggests, the government could replace the blunt instrument of raising state pension age with more finely-tuned policies, allowing those who can and want to extend their working lives to do so in a flexible way, this would be fairer and give the most vulnerable a better chance of enjoying a healthy retirement.

Further information

Relationship between employment histories and frailty trajectories in later life: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is research by Wentian Lu, Rebecca Benson and Amanda Sacker of University College London, Karen Glaser and Laurie Corna of King’s College London, Loretta Platts of Stockholm University, Diana Worts and Peggy McDonough of the University of Toronto, Giorgio Di Gessa from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Debora Price of the University of Manchester. It is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

 

Want to be fit at forty? Don’t have a baby early!

Having a family early may not be good for your health later on. That was the conclusion of a team of researchers at the ESRC International centre for Lifecourse Studies when they looked at the interplay between the work and family lives of men and women, whose lives have been tracked over time in the 1958 Birth Cohort Study. But was it the same story for people born earlier and has it been the same for people who were born later? Dr Rebecca Lacey, who led the research, has been looking at the lives of thousands of adults in three Birth Cohort Studies to see whether the way their work and family lives intertwine impacts on the likelihood of them becoming overweight or obese later on.

In a recent blog for WorkLife, my colleague Anne McMunn outlined some of our research showing that, for both men and women, having children early, especially as a teenager, was closely linked with poorer health once they got into their forties.

Not only did the people we looked at for that piece of research have bigger waists, but they also had a great deal more fat circulating in their blood and less ‘good’ cholesterol, both of which are linked with a heightened risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Those findings stayed strong, even for young parents who had a job and were married, a clear indication that having children early on, with all the associated stresses and strains, seems to take a heavy toll on health over the life course.

For that piece of research, we looked only at people who had taken part in the National Child Development Study, also known as the 1958 Birth Cohort. For this research we looked, in addition at thousands more people, born in 1946 (National Survey of Health and Development) and another group born in 1970 (the British Cohort Study) whose lives had been tracked since birth.

Across cohorts

The reason for looking across cohorts was to see whether changes across generations in how we combine work and family (having children later, more cohabitation and less marriage, more women working etc.) have contributed in some way towards poorer health for some.

As with the earlier research, we made use of 12 specially created lifecourse types covering information on employment, partnerships and parenthood, such as ‘Work, Later family’ ‘Later family, Work break’, ‘Teen parent’.

Each individual in each birth cohort was ascribed a lifecourse type and this was then linked to their Body Mass Index (BMI) and how that changed over time. We went on to see how those figures differed between lifecourse types within and across the three cohorts. We used the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition of overweight (BMI greater than or equal to 25) and obesity (BMI greater than or equal to 30).

In addition, we took a host of other factors including our participants’ socio-economic background, prior health and educational attainment into consideration.

We anticipated that, as our earlier research had shown, that people who worked less and had children earlier would show steeper increases in BMI and that across the three cohorts, those increases would become more pronounced.

Changing attitudes and behaviours

The distribution of lifecourse types across the three cohorts reflected, as we thought it would, changing attitudes and behaviours across generations, with increasingly more women in employment and early parenthood becoming less and less common.

In the 1946 cohort, the average BMI of a very small group of men who were ‘Teen parents’ increased from 20.3 to 26.76 between age 16-42, significantly more than any other work-family combination. The same was true for male teen parents in the 1958 cohort and also for those who worked and had a family early. In the 1970 cohort, men who had no children or had children later had BMI that increased significantly less than those who became parents earlier. The only exception to this was a group of men with no family and unstable work.

Another notable finding across all three cohorts was that average BMIs for men at age 42 in all of the work-family groups were higher than the WHO threshold for overweight. The only exception was men who had children later or no children at all.

For women in the 1946 study, there was no real difference between the groups when we looked at how their BMI increased between the ages of 16 and 42. The average BMI of the 1958 cohort women who had children early increased significantly more than that of women who had them later. Women in the 1970 cohort who did not work and had children early had the biggest BMI rise (6.69) with teen parents (6.31) close behind. The average BMI of the 42 year-old women in these two groups was on the WHO obesity threshold (30), with the average BMI for the remaining work-family groups all falling under the WHO definition of overweight (25 and above).

Other interesting things to emerge included:

  • BMI increased more for male teen parents than female in the 1970 cohort
  • Marriage seems to have particular health benefits for men
  • Divorce has greater negative health effects for men than women

Negative impact

This research reinforces what we found earlier, which is that for both men and women having children early (especially in your teens) no matter what your background, is likely to have a negative impact on your health in mid life, especially if you don’t have a job or if your work is irregular or unstable. Looking across three cohorts, we can also see that those differences have become more pronounced.

How to explain and better understand how all this plays out in the day to day lives of younger parents is a challenge. Having children early may disrupt someone’s education or career. Younger parents may also be more likely to smoke and drink and exercise less than their older counterparts, unhealthy behaviours which can become established early and set in across adulthood.

Whatever the context and the reasons, there are some important messages here for young people, prospective parents, health and education professionals as well as for Government; not least that decisions about how to combine work and family life, especially when to become a parent, may have long lasting ramifications for your health.

This research adds to a growing body of evidence which makes it clear that, as far as obesity is concerned, early intervention is key and that we need to consider the complex way in which our biological and social lives intertwine over time.

Further information

Work-family life courses and BMI trajectories in three British birth cohorts is research by Rebecca Lacey, Amanda Sacker, Steven Bell, Meena Kumari, Diana Worts, Peggy McDonough, Diana Kuh, and Anne McMunn. It is published in the International Journal of Obesity.

Photo credit: Baby Fingers, Thomas

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

 

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 illness 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

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.