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How do our social circumstances impact health in later life?

A new research project between the US, Ireland and Northern Ireland will explore how experiences in early life, such as childhood poverty, marital break-up, or mental and physical health issues, contribute to the rate of biological ageing and impact on health.

DNA code overlying old man's hand

The research is possible because of the unique availability of detailed health, social, economic, and epigenetic data from three similar national studies of ageing – TILDA the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, the US Health and Retirement Study (HRS) and the Northern Ireland COhort for the Longitudinal study of Ageing (NICOLA).

The national studies of ageing detail current status as well as events across the life course which shape how we age, and how quickly we age.  In particular, Epigenetics looks at how changes in our experiences throughout life, health behaviours and environment influence genes. Epigenetic changes happen throughout life and may indicate the pace of ageing in human cells.

People participating in these national studies experienced different levels of economic and social development and encountered different life challenges and adversities which will allow research teams to examine how these alter both the ageing process and health trajectories.

The project will receive €4 million from the US Ireland R&D Partnership*. The Health Research Board (HRB) has been co-funding projects through this R&D Partnership since 2009. This new research led by the TILDA team at Trinity College Dublin will be jointly funded by the HRB and Science Foundation Ireland, with additional funding from Northern Ireland and the US.  

Dr Mairead O’Driscoll, Chief Executive at the Health Research Board welcomed the news;

'This new research demonstrates how we can use national data to better understand and inform health and healthcare. The power of these data sets can be further enhanced when compared across different countries with different populations, healthcare settings and social circumstances. We are delighted that HRB participation in the US Ireland R&D Partnership mechanism is making this unique research collaboration possible. It also builds on our long-standing support for the TILDA study.' 

Professor Rose Anne Kenny, TILDA Principal Investigator, and project lead on the Republic of Ireland research team, says

‘We are delighted to work with our international colleagues in other institutions building on each other’s expertise to better understand why we age and how we can improve the experience of ageing. Even when challenged with similar adversities in life, we do not necessarily respond biologically in the same way - some people experience poor physical and mental health as a consequence, whereas others appear more resilient and impervious to bad experiences.

Understanding the biological differences which underpin these disparities will help us to better understand why and how we age, as we compare and contrast data across three countries with unique geo-political, socio-political histories, and health and social service models.

This project will help researchers to seek answers about how adverse life circumstances impact the epigenome and how these experiences alter and shape health circumstances in the later stage of life. We are delighted to contribute our expertise and wealth of longitudinal research from TILDA and work alongside our partners in the US and Northern Ireland to build this comparative approach to science’.

The team from Trinity College Dublin includes Senior Research Fellows Dr Cathal McCrory and Dr Aisling O’Halloran who will work with colleagues at the University of Michigan, the University of Southern California, the University of Minnesota, the University of California Los Angeles, Yale University, and Queen’s University Belfast.

Read the Trinity College press release

Health Research Board 

The HRB is the lead funder of research across the health and social care system and a lead provider of evidence and data to inform decisions in health policy and practice.

The HRB are leaders in supporting and raising the standard of health and social care research, evidence and data nationally. We provide an independent voice for health research evidence. The HRB is agile and innovative in how we respond to the needs of society and the health system. We achieve this by building strong collaborations with stakeholders nationally and internationally, delivering the highest quality work and treating everyone fairly and equitably. 

TILDA 

One of the greatest demographic and social transformations facing Ireland is ageing of its population, increased life expectancy and related challenges. While Ireland has one of the youngest populations in the EU, by 2049 the population aged 65 and over will be 25%, with those aged 80 and making up 9% of the population.

The TILDA study was established in 2006 to respond to the need for quality data on older and ageing adults in Ireland to inform policy, practice and future research needs. The study collects information on all aspects of health, economic and social circumstances from people aged 50+ in a series of data collection waves that take place every two years. Initially funded by The Department of Health (€12m) , Atlantic Philanthropies (€12m), and Irish Life (€4m), an additional €10m investment by the Health Research Board on behalf of  the Department of Health enables the collection of further waves of data from 2017-2022. 

*US Ireland R&D Partnership 

The US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership Programme is run jointly by funding agencies across three jurisdictions: United States of America, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Programme aims to increase the level of collaborative R&D among researchers and industry professionals across the three jurisdictions. The Partnership aims to generate discoveries and innovations which:

  • Are transferable to the marketplace, or
  • Will lead to enhancements in health, disease prevention and healthcare.

Joint ‘tri-partite’ applications must be made by a team of US, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland researchers. Each funding agency will fund only the elements of the research that are undertaken in that particular agency’s jurisdiction. Partnership Programme funding must add significant value in excess of what would be achievable by the applicant if they were working alone, supported only by existing national funding.

HRB have been supporting applications to the US National Institutes of Health under this Partnership since 2009, and jointly co-fund successful applications under the Health programme together with Science Foundation Ireland. 

https://www.hrb.ie/funding/funding-schemes/all-funding-schemes/grant/us-ireland-research-and-development-partnership-programme