The University of Stirling has funding and approval to pilot Scotland’s first longitudinal study of ageing – Healthy Ageing in Scotland, or HAGIS for short. HAGIS will join the International Network of Ageing – a global platform for data sharing and collaboration. This will provide opportunities to learn more about older people in Scotland and to compare our health with other nations.
Scotland does not have a longitudinal study of ageing. This is unusual given that England (ELSA) Northern Ireland (NICOLA) and Ireland (TILDA) have one, and there are others that operate in Europe (SHARE), the USA (HRS) and in other countries across the world. Scotland needs its own longitudinal study of ageing because, unfortunately, life expectancy in Scotland is lower than our neighbouring countries – even when we account for poverty and deprivation. Our health is generally poorer and a greater proportion of our population are ageing when compared to other UK countries. It is time to learn more about the unique circumstances that lead to such different outcomes for older people living in Scotland.
HAGIS will interview 1,000 people in Scotland aged 50 years or over. Broadly, participants will be asked about their health, their social and financial circumstances. The aim is to use this research to inform policy and improve the outcomes for older people in Scotland. To follow is a brief selection of some specific areas of HAGIS that are particularly relevant to dementia research.
Brain (cognitive) Function
In conjunction with Professor Ian Deary of the University of Edinburgh, HAGIS will ask a series of questions and some fun tests to find out more about brain function in older adults. (Yes, fun tests! That’s the feedback we received from some older people who tried them out). They are quick to do and will be conducted by trained interviewers. We expect to be able to learn more about the relationship between ageing and decline in brain function - this could influence the design of policy to support older people to maintain their independence and achieve a better quality of life.
Having access to friends and family are important for quality of life (Damant et al, 2016). As we get older, these networks may also form part of our informal support or care. We will ask questions about social support networks, including the type of informal support and care that is both given to and received by family, friends and neighbours. This will help us to understand more about the role of care-giving and care-receiving, its effect on health and independent living, and to look at ways in which we can support carers more effectively.
We will also ask participants to allow us to link their survey responses to their social care data. This will help us to understand more about the formal care given to older people, and to see how it is related to informal support networks.
Loneliness and the Internet
We will also ask about feelings of social isolation and loneliness. We know that loneliness affects many older people and that this can sometimes lead to poorer physical and mental health (Gow et al, 2013., Steptoe et al, 2013). We also know that use of internet can minimise feelings of loneliness and social isolation for some older people by offering other ways to keep in touch with family or to take up new interests or hobbies (Damant et al, 2016). There is some evidence to suggest that internet use may also support healthy brain function, including memory (Myhre et al, 2016). We need to learn more about the relationship between loneliness and (physical and mental) health, and how we can make life better for older people.
HAGIS will also be able to support research into lots of other areas, including pension planning and receipt of benefits. This will become increasingly important as we require sustainable social and economic policies that will support our ageing population, now and in the future.
Damant, J., Knapp, M., Freddolino, P. and Lombard, D. (2016), Effects of digital engagement on the quality of life of older people. Health & Social Care in the Community. doi: 10.1111/hsc.12335
Gow A, J, Corley J, Starr J, M, Deary I, J, Which Social Network or Support Factors are Associated with Cognitive Abilities in Old Age? Gerontology 2013; 59:454-463
Myhre, J. W., Mehl, M. R., & Glisky, E. L. (2016). Cognitive Benefits of Online Social Networking for Healthy Older Adults. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, gbw025.
Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., & Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(15), 5797–5801.
HAGIS gratefully acknowledges the funding received from the National Institute of Ageing and the Nuffield Foundation. The principal investigator of the HAGIS pilot study is Professor David Bell. Dr Elaine Douglas manages the pilot study and can be contacted for further information (firstname.lastname@example.org).