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Exploring the potential to promote healthy ageing and reduce multimorbidity by enhancing social connections post-retirement.


Project Description

This studentship is part of the Healthy Lifespan Institute at the University of Sheffield, a newly formed flagship research initiative with the mission to prevent multimorbidity through innovative policies, services and products. Multimorbidity is a rapidly increasing global epidemic due to population ageing. The Institute is built on the twin pillars of research excellence and impact innovation to understand the common biological and social processes underpinning multimorbidity as people age and discover novel ways to intervene at different stages of the life course. The Institute comprises of more than 120 leading researchers from across four faculties, led by the medical and social sciences, with a unique focus on improving health across the life course by preventing multimorbidity – the presence of two or more chronic health conditions – and age-related frailty.

Supervisors: Prof. Elizabeth Goyder (School of Health and Related Research) and Dr. Andrea Wigfield (Department of Sociological Studies). There will be additional mentorship from Dr. Sarah Hothman (Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Kent) and Steve Chu (Chief Executive, Age UK Sheffield & Director of Age England Association).

There are currently different but related research evidence bases in the disciplines of social science and public health/epidemiology which support the concept that social engagement and physical activity are crucial to healthy ageing, and both directly contribute to reducing morbidity and mortality and increasing wellbeing throughout the life course. There are substantial associations with socioeconomic and health inequalities, which may be in part related to the inequalities associated with transitions between work and retirement. Individual and community contexts are critical determinants of whether retirement from paid work has an associated change in an individual’s capacity, opportunities and motivations for social engagement and physical activity and the resulting health implications. Individuals and communities with greater social capital and stronger social networks are also more physically active and this studentship would explore the synergies between social activities and health-related behaviours which may drive or mitigate the related health inequalities. This could inform the development within HELSI of specific intervention strategies which target the determinants of healthy ageing in a much more holistic way than previous approaches.

The aim of the project will be to understand the links between multimorbitity and social connections, and to generate evidence to support the development of strategies and interventions that can reduce or prevent multimorbidity through enhancing social connections. We are offering a study based in Sheffield using a mixed methods approach to be designed by the successful candidate. Methods are expected to include: synthesis of existing evidence; analysis of existing large scale datasets; a survey of older people; focus groups with a selection of survey respondents, and qualitative interviews with key stakeholders and service providers in the Sheffield region.

Objectives:
- Synthesise existing evidence for i) causal associations between community activities post retirement and changes in social connections ii) causal associations between changes in social connections and health related behaviours (physical activity, diet, alcohol consumption etc.)
- Use existing large scale datasets e.g. English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) to explore associations between social connections and health related behaviours.
- Identify community interventions with significant potential to enhance social connections and support health related behaviours (e.g. community dance; lunch clubs, walking groups; walking football) and conduct a survey of older people post retirement (both participants and non-participants).
- Explore with intervention providers and intervention participants/non-participants the contextual factors, mechanisms/pathways and potential changes in both social connections and health behaviours.
With a range of relevant stakeholders, develop evidence-based recommendations for maximizing the value of community activities for individuals post-retirement.

The project will potentially require the use of both systematic review methods for evidence synthesis of both quantitative and qualitative research, quantitative data collection and analysis, and qualitative primary data collection and analysis methods. It will also require collaboration with community organisations, older people and other stakeholders.

By engaging with extensive contacts in the city the student will be supported to access appropriate participants in the study.

The main outputs for direct relevance and benefit to the Healthy Lifespan Institute will be both the systematic analysis of existing research and datasets AND quantitative and qualitative exploration of how local programmes can enhance social connections. An overarching Healthy Lifespan Institute aim is to develop, implement and evaluate more holistic interventions and it is likely that “social prescribing” will play an important role in future clinical management approaches. The findings of this study will be able to directly inform intervention development.

Required project start date: by December 2019.

Funding Notes

Full fees and maintenance at the Research Council rates for 3.5 years
A Research Training Support Grant of £1,500 per year.
The student will submit their thesis at the end of this period.

Entry requirements:
First or upper second class honours degree
Merit at masters or significant research experience.
The project is appropriate for applicants from a range of disciplinary backgrounds interested in working at the interface between public health and social sciences and have some experience in both qualitative and quantitative research methods.

Online application form: View Website
Please state the studentship supervisors and title. Select ScHARR as the department.

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