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Social health in older adults from minority groups

The changing nature and composition of the ageing population of the UK is dynamic and increasingly heterogeneous with the ageing of minority groups, the formal recognition of new social identities (e.g., LGBTQ+) and the increased life expectancy of those with lifelong disabilities (e.g.,cerebral palsy). We estimate these ‘new ageing’ population groups represent up to 15%, 1.3 million,of the 9 million people aged 65+ in the UK (4.9 million of the 33 million aged 40+). However there is little research reporting the experiences of ageing for these groups.

We consider all three groups because of their shared experiences of being negatively affected by social attitudes and marginalization and positively by equality legislation while recognizing potential differences within and between groups.

These groups have characteristics in common including:

  • being the focus of stigma and discrimination across their life course to which ageism is added as they age,
  • are under researched from a gerontological perspective,
  • challenge existing stereotypes and images of ageing and
  • have sparse research, policy, and practice evidence base.

Our research focuses on social health because it constitutes the third element of the WHO definition of health and extends beyond the focus on single concepts such as loneliness and isolation. We conceptualize social health as the situation when individuals are fully participating in the interconnected domains of their social world.

Three key evidence gaps in our knowledge about loneliness and isolation in older adults underpin our research:-

  • the need to include groups of older adults underrepresented in our research evidence;
  • the focus on social health rather than individual aspects such as loneliness 
  • the the need to incorporate the life course and intersectional approaches in understanding social health outcomes in later life.

What is social health?

This concept encompasses both objective (network size, isolation, participation-civic, cultural, economic, political) and evaluative (loneliness, social support, or social inclusion) dimensions and all forms of connections: in-person or remotely via digital and other media.

Social health is:

  • robust levels of supportive social contacts
  • relationships which are fulfilling and/or perceived as high quality
  • engagement with others in their communities as equals
  • full participation in interconnected areas of social life-cultural, political, economic, civic and
  • relationships which support a sense of belonging.

This approach will provide a comprehensive overview of social health from which we will develop an index of socially healthy ageing. We integrate three concepts to understand and explain social health outcomes for our three groups. We combine ageing (the effects of time-life course), age as a social category (intersectionality) and explanation (the ecological model) to offer a novel approach to understanding late life social health outcomes.

Our project extends and expands the parameters of ageing research by applying intersectional and life course perspectives to evaluate, explain and extend our understanding of late life inequalities in objective (social isolation) and evaluative (loneliness) social health, the third element of the WHO definition of health as a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing.

We use our civic university status to contribute our findings to policy/practice developments across the borough. Active engagement with our key stakeholders will ensure that the needs, preferences and aspirations older people, policy makers, practitioners, and service providers/commissioners, third sector organizations and academics of this group underpin our project and reflect the different contexts and diverse characteristics which contextualize the experience of ageing.

Research methodology

Meet the Principal Investigator(s) for the project

Professor Christina Victor
Professor Christina Victor - Christina joined Brunel in October 2009. She is  Professor of Gerontology and Public Health  in the College of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences and Associate PVC-Research Culture and Governance. She is also Director of the  Institute of Health, Medicine and Environments. Christina started her academic career as a geographer with a particular interest in the spatial distribution of health and illness and access to, and provision of, health and social care. She has a BA in Geography from Swansea University and an M Phil in medical geography from Nottingham.  It was whilst working at the Medical School in Cardiff that she developed  her interests in gerontology and her PhD investigated outcome after discharge for older people in Wales and she now focuses her interests in public health/population medicine on to the experiences of old age and later life. She has a special interest in researching loneliness and isolation. Christina’s initial research interests were focussed upon  health and health inequalities and the evaluation of services for older people.   More recently she developed a keen interest in loneliness and isolation; the benefits of exercise and activity in later life and the experiences of old age and later life amongst minority communities and the experience of ageing for people with intellectual disabilities. She has received funding for her research from a range of funders including ESRC, NIHR, Dunhill Medical Trust, Leverhulme and the British Academy. Christina has written over  400 peer reviewed articles and published  8 books in the field of gerontology. She is a Fellow of the Faculty of Public Health and an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences.  In 2017 Christina was awarded the Lifetime Achievement award of the British Society of Gerontology and awarded Fellowship of the Gerontological Society of America. Her work has been cited 23,000 times and her H idex is 78. She has 3 articles in the list of the 100 most cited articles in the field of loneliness and is ranked as one of the top 100 social science and humanities researchers in the UK.  Qualifications: PhD, M Phil, BA

Related Research Group(s)

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Health and Wellbeing Across the Lifecourse - Inequalities in health and wellbeing in the UK and internationally; welfare, health and wellbeing; ageing studies; health economics.

Partnering with confidence

Organisations interested in our research can partner with us with confidence backed by an external and independent benchmark: The Knowledge Exchange Framework. Read more.

Project last modified 21/11/2023