Area-based characteristics

Life course models of ageing should incorporate the effects of the broader social environment (the 'eco-social' model) within which individuals live and work, as this is known to affect health.

Dr Emily Murray introduces Area-based Characteristics
See more on the MRC comms Youtube channel

What are 'area based characteristics'?

They are characteristics of the local area in which a person lives and include such aspects as the social class mix and population density, and markers of health such as infant mortality rates.

What we know and what we don’t know

It has been known for a long time that individuals living in poorer areas have worse health. The most famous example of mapping at a local area level is probably Charles Booth’s 19th century poverty map of London. Most studies have so far only looked at the influence of current area of residence on health. Such studies have shown that people living in more deprived areas have poorer health, irrespective of their own individual socioeconomic position. However we did not know whether the characteristics of the area in which individuals grew up have a long-term impact on capability and wellbeing in later life.

How was this research undertaken?

We applied this mapping across the life course by using databases created by historical geographers of the characteristics of local government districts during the last century. We looked at which government district a study member lived in at three life stages: childhood, young adulthood and midlife. Then we linked information on the characteristics of those areas (such as area unemployment, occupational social class, household amenities, educational achievement distribution and overcrowding) to these individuals.

What we are researching


We took into account the movements of people, area to area, across their lifetime, as well as how areas themselves have changed over time. We mapped the effects on capability and wellbeing later in life of the area characteristics in which individuals grew up and where they lived as a young adult, as well as their current area of residence.

We wanted to know using data from the NSHD on areas of residence across life whether:

  • there are area based characteristics that can explain variations in capability and wellbeing
  • individual characteristics acting across life explain such variation
  • the effects of area based characteristics in early life on capability in later life are modified when an individual moves to another area

The findings from this programme could allow health professionals to highlight geographical areas with greater need for early intervention.

What have we found so far?

  • For the first time we have investigated how to deal with inconsistencies in census area socioeconomic measures over time, changes in reporting unit size to which measures apply, and secular social changes over time (Murray et al., Health and Place 2012).
  • Cohort members in the NSHD living in areas of greater deprivation in mid-life had poorer physical capability at age 53 years. Those living in areas of greater deprivation in childhood performed more poorly on the balance test than those living in less deprived areas (Murray et al., American Journal of Epidemiology 2013).

As part of this work, we also presented an exhibit at the British Library's "Census and Society: Why Everyone Counts", 7th March - 29th May 2011.

Please see the Case for Support for a detailed, more technical overview of the work packages.

Further Reading

HALCyon Publications

Kuh D, Cooper R, Hardy R, Richards M, Ben-Shlomo Y (Eds). A life course approach to healthy ageing. Oxford University Press to be published January 9th 2014.

  • Chapter 18: Lifetime lifestyles III: where we live, the life course and ageing
    Dr Emily Murray and Dr Mai Stafford