Introducing ELSA for the 4th time

As the dust was settling from the Spending Review, the world of UK ageing research gathered at the Royal Society last Thursday for the launch of the fourth wave of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. ELSA, as it ubiquitously known, is the single best source of data on experiences of later life in England. It tracks a group of people aged over 50 every two years, returning each time with detailed questionnaires and medical tests. After a day of presentations from researchers, focusing on everything from energy prices to sleep patterns, I joined a panel, chaired by Sir Michael Marmot, tasked with summing-up and reacting to the findings. So what were my first impressions?

Royal Society, London
Royal Society: Flickr user SBishop

Drawing some of the bits of the jigsaw together, first of all, the report shatters a few myths about getting older: people have better experiences of sleep as they get older; the number of people in later life who are underweight is very low; withdrawal from organised social activity in late old age is far less common than you might think; and caring for your partner is a greater burden than caring for your parents.

These snapshot findings are startling enough, but the real strength of ELSA is the portrait it can paint of change over time. With data now available from 2002 to 2008 a picture of the last decade is starting to emerge.  We know that on average older people now have higher incomes, driven by wealthier groups reaching old age with a higher share of non-state income than previous generations; spending on energy has risen significantly, as had spending on essentials overall, for poorer households; the credit crunch led to a noticeable decline in average personal wealth between 2006/07 and 2008/09; and over a longer period there was also a concerning decline in satisfaction with life and an increase in loneliness.

The single most positive change over the decade I picked up was the population-wide decline in cholesterol levels, evidence of the impact statin prescriptions have been having.  But the news on health in general is far more concerning: within each age group there is no clear evidence that health has been improving over the course of the last decade. Given that life expectancy has been rising fast, this implies people are living for more years with ill-health and disability – so called, extension of morbidity. The researchers were careful to say these were early findings; but if they’re backed up by other sources, this is a very serious trend, both for personal wellbeing and the national finances.

Finally, ELSA wave 4 paints a new portrait of inequality in later life. In some areas the evidence suggests that inequality is entrenched, but not growing worse – examples include quality of life, loneliness and many measures of health. But on other measures inequality in later life increased. Income inequalities widened over the period, and there is also evidence that opportunities for older workers are becoming polarised, with poorly educated people being much less likely to benefit for the general rise in 50+ employment.

These are just a few minutes’ reflection on a few hours of presentation; they merely scratch the surface. The latest ELSA report, like its predecessors, will be worth returning to for years to come.