Our expert answers 3 Questions
For a number of years, I have been focusing on the health and well-being of aging populations through the lens of social epidemiology. In particular, I have been studying the major determinants of late-life declines in health by looking at increases in disabilities and decreases in self-care abilities and independent living among the elderly. Interactions with others in the community, participation in social activities, and the social environment in which they live all affect the health of aging populations. One of my current projects is focused on these factors using a social network methodology with data from the Chicago Health and Aging Project (CHAP). Simulations are made based on these data to understand the structure and dynamics of the social relationships in the CHAP study population, and then to see if these social network characteristics affect older adults’ health trajectories as they age. Another current project uses occupational history data from the same population to evaluate the degree to which work-related cognitive and psychosocial experiences during adulthood are linked to the aging process later in life. These types of studies are more common in European than in American populations and they can help us to understand the health of the aging population in the U.S.
The study of social factors and how they influence health outcomes is a fascinating aspect of social epidemiology. Such studies are especially important for older adults because they face unique challenges when compared to younger adult populations. There has been very little research so far that has used a social network methodology to understand the social dynamics of age-associated changes in health in the rapidly aging population in the U.S. This systems-based approach can shed new light on the social determinants of health for the aging population and how our health system can help to address them.
There are many opportunities to consider the linkages between the residential social environments in which older people live, the social networks in which they interact with others, and access to or utilization of health care services. Older adults utilize more health care services than other age groups and face more obstacles when accessing these services. Reduced mobility and reduced cognitive functioning may have a significant negative influence on older adults’ ability to access health care services and navigate a complex health care and insurance system. Future studies could focus on how older persons’ positions within larger social network structures enable them to overcome barriers in the effective use of the health care services they need.