Life history and healthy ageing

A focus on subjective experiences and beliefs - qualitative information - can provide insights not obtainable by quantitative methods alone.

Prof Jane Elliott introduces Life History & Healthy Ageing
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What are qualitative and quantitative measures?

Quantitative research concentrates on building up large sets of objective measurements. For example, it’s not so useful to know how fast an individual can walk 10 metres, but if we know this for a thousand people of the same age then we could tell if this individual walked faster or slower than average.

In contrast, qualitative research looks at the way an individual labels or describes an experience or concept. For instance two people from different socioeconomic groups may think of ‘good health’ in rather different ways.  

Why is qualitative research important?

Few studies have used qualitative methods in the study of capability or wellbeing, yet a focus on subjective experiences and beliefs can provide insights not obtainable by quantitative methods alone. For example, researchers using both methods together have shown that the impact of psychosocial and socioeconomic resources on a person’s sense of wellbeing depend on the individual’s goals in life.

The results of the quantitative analyses can make a real impact on individuals’ lives and experiences of ageing. By looking at how people themselves understand their life history, the experiences that shaped them, and their response to ageing we could help health professionals understand the range of meanings given to ageing by older people, and improve the quality of care. 

Qualitative information can also be used to generate new hypotheses on healthy ageing – these can then be tested using the quantitative data available.

How was this research undertaken?

Families' weekly food diary

We interviewed a sample of study members from three of the cohorts (HCS, NSHD and NCDS) to collect qualitative information. This information was then linked with the quantitative data using special software. Our aim was to see if there are relationships between people's life stories, their sense of wellbeing and the physical process of ageing.

What we are researching

Through in-depth interviews this research gave selected cohort members the opportunity to construct narratives about their own lives and identities.

We used these narratives to:

  • Make comparisons between cohorts about the meaning and experience of ageing
  • Look for key individual, family and contextual influences on people’s sense of wellbeing
  • Understand how experiences in early life may shape adult lifestyles
  • Generate new hypotheses to test using quantitative methods

What have we found so far?

  • We provided an overview of the design of the qualitative study. Our focus was the content of the interview topic guide, the sampling strategy, and the characteristics of the sample that was achieved in comparison with the overall survey population (Elliott et al., Centre for Longitudinal Studies Cohort Studies Working paper 2011).
  • We reported that there is some difference in the way older people view aspects of ageing by capability and that although advantages were widely perceived, physical decline and associated health concerns were the overwhelming theme across the conversations (Parsons et al., Ageing and Society 2012).

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 9: Understanding healthy ageing using a qualitative approach: the value of narratives and individual biographies.  
    JD Carpentieri and Professor Jane Elliott