English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA)

Three generations in canoes

The ELSA study was modelled on the Health and Retirement Survey in the U.S.A. and started with a nationwide representative sample of people selected at random from the community. Its aim is to revisit the same study subjects biennially and get a picture of the shape of their lives as they age. This is known as a longitudinal study.

The value of this kind of study comes from analysing how changes over time in one domain feed into functioning in another. For example, the finding that sick people have lower incomes than those who are healthy could arise because low income leads to ill health. It could also be the other way: ill health could lead to loss of earning power and hence to lower income. Longitudinal data has a better prospect of determining the relative importance of these two possibilities than a simple 'cross-sectional' description of low income and poor health being linked.

ELSA participants originally took part in the Health Survey for England. The first fieldwork for the new longitudinal study started in 2002 (known as Wave 1) and collected data from about 12,000 people. These participants form our first core cohort; at subsequent waves as many as possible of the survivors of the original core participants are recontacted. New recruits at the youngest ages were brought in for Wave 3 in 2006-7 and the sample was boosted for ages 50-74 in Wave 4.

Background

Many people see ageing as a time of decline, decline in physical and cognitive ability, decline in freedom, the ability earn and in status. Encroaching dependency and placing a burden on the state are fears that seem to accompany ageing beyond retirement.
Such a picture denies the variety of experience of older people. Experiences of older people range from a depressing stereotype to that of vigorous octogenarians economically and socially independent, with little disability, wide social and cultural interests and much to contribute to society. Which of these pictures, and the whole range in between, will dominate has profound import for social and medical services, for the economy and for the design of neighbourhoods, as well as for the wellbeing of the population.

It is to understand this variability that the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) was established. ELSA is the first study in the UK to connect the full range of topics necessary to understand the economic, social, psychological and health elements of the ageing process. The aim of ELSA is to explore the unfolding dynamic relationships between health, functioning, social networks and economic position. It is in effect a study of people's quality of life as they age beyond 50 and of the factors associated with it.

Aims

It has three principal purposes.

  • Firstly, to complete the picture of what it means to grow older in the new century.

    Beyond the concerns for pensions there is little information about the reality of people's finances after retirement. Beyond the perception of increasing disability there is sparse data on the positive sides of ageing. Worries about social isolation are not backed up with research. What is needed here is detail; for instance we want to know if people's physical decline varies with gender, occupation and economic circumstances.

  • Secondly, to examine the interrelationship between different areas of life.

    For example what is the relationship between health and adequacy of financial arrangements for older age? Why do people in lower social positions appear to be suffering from age related declines at an earlier age than people in higher social positions? By bringing together information and scientists from different domains ELSA can help answer these questions.

  • The third purpose of ELSA is understanding.

    What accounts for the variety of patterns that we see? The aim here is  to provide the scientific basis for policy. What determines whether old age will be a time of misery and dependency, or one of vigour, social engagement and good health?

What does the questionnaire in each wave ask?

The ELSA questionnaire covers much ground:

  • Individual and household characteristics
  • Physical, cognitive, mental and psychological health
  • Social participation and social support
  • Housing and work
  • Pensions, income and wealth
  • Expectations for the future
  • Quality of life

ELSA is part of a growing family of studies worldwide.  After HRS and ELSA, the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) began and now there are studies being developed in Korea, Japan, China and elsewhere.

Results of the study

Findings this early on in the study have been related to benchmarking and consist of interesting insights into the lives and expectations of the older population:

  • Physical health declines with age. Twenty-four percent of people aged between 50 and 55 years said that they had an illness that limited what they could do, compared with 53% of you aged over 80 years.
  • Mental health does not decline with age. People with the poorest mental health are likely to be in either the youngest or the oldest age groups.
  • Those aged 65 and over have a monthly income which is two thirds of those aged under 65.
  • People thought there was a three in ten chance that their future resources would not be enough to meet their needs. But these chances are lower for those with more wealth.

Further reading