Influences on quality of life in early old age

Project lead: Dr David Blane

Research team

  • Dr David Blane

  • Professor Dick Wiggins

  • Dr Paul Higgs

  • Mr Martin Hyde


December 1999 - July 2002


Dr David Blane
Department of Social Science & Medicine
Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine
Reynolds Building
Charing Cross Campus
London W6 8RP

Tel: +44 207 594 0789


A growing proportion of the lives of a growing number of people will be spent as healthy and, in some cases, relatively affluent retirees. Recent social and demographic changes make this development inevitable. Labour market exit, whether through early retirement or long term unemployment, is occurring at earlier ages; at the same time, adequate occupational pensions are becoming more widespread and healthy life expectancy at age 65 years is increasing. The opportunities, costs and benefits of this phase of life are of considerable importance to both citizens and state. Our research will contribute to an understanding of these social changes by examining their impact on the quality of life of a representative sample of British people in early old age.

Aims and objectives

The main aim of the study is to provide basic science information which is relevant to the policy of extending quality of life (QoL) and to pursue this aim by integrating contributions from different academic disciplines; in particular, social gerontology's ideas of structured dependency and the Third Age, social epidemiology's interest in contextual and life course influences on circumstances in later life and new statistical methods for analysing life course data.

The objectives of the study are:

  • To develop a measure of QoL in early old age which goes beyond health-related QoL to the potentially enriching idea of the Third Age.

  • To establish whether there are inequalities in this wider QoL in early old age; and to estimate the size of any such inequalities by socio-economic position and gender.

  • To identify the main contextual (current) and life course influences on this wider QoL; and to investigate variation in these influences by socio-economic position and gender.

  • To contribute to the theoretical debate about the changing nature of retirement and old age.

  • To make maximum use of a unique data set which has been assembled through previous ESRC funding; and to enhance this data set through the addition of new information.

Study design

Much information has already been collected about the nearly 300 people, mostly aged 65-75 years, who will be the subjects of our study. They were studied as children in 1937-39 when information about their diet, health and social circumstances was collected. They were traced recently to their present locations and, as part of a previous ESRC-funded study, interviewed in 1997-98. Full family, household, residential and occupational histories were taken, covering the whole of their lives, and details of their present health and social circumstances were collected.

Our new study will collect additional information by postal questionnaire, backed up by telephone interviews with non-responders, about the subjects' QoL. The aspects of interest will include the extent to which this phase of life is experienced as positive and self-enhancing; and the factors which may influence this perception, such as involvement with community and family, access to services and domestic assistance. This information will allow us to estimate the social distribution of good QoL in early old age and to identify its predictors in terms of present life circumstances and pathways from childhood through life.

Policy implications

The results of the research will be relevant to policies ranging widely from national issues, such as pensions and housing, to personal decisions like the balance of benefit associated with 'retiring to the south coast', where the dream of contentment comes at the price of disrupting life-long social networks.

Plausibly, each case is influenced by the present and the past, but little is known about their relative importance in later life. And without that information it is difficult to know whether policies should be directed at early old age or whether earlier interventions are required.