The central theme of the Workshop is how research builds knowledge about ageing, and how knowledge building is affected by the theoretical and empirical approaches adopted in research and the analytic methodologies employed. Australian research in ageing already has a strong empirical base, and methodologies are advancing rapidly as increasing availability of large datasets with multiple occasions of measurement, combined with new software tools, are allowing more extensive analyses of the dynamic processes of ageing. Substantive researchers with a reasonably high level of statistical skills can use these methods, whereas they were once restricted to biostatisticians. The ARC/NHMRC projects are at the leading edge of a new wave of longitudinal research that has the potential to rapidly increase our understanding of ageing in healthy and productive ageing, especially through microsimulation of outcomes of social and economic trends and interactions.

This potential will only be fully realised if these empirical advances are matched by theoretical advances that will lead to more sophisticated interpretation, explanation and synthesis of the empirical findings, and assist in translating research findings into policy formulation. Many theories about ageing that were developed on the basis of cross-sectional research have never been tested longitudinally, and those which have been tested have not generally been supported. Many of these theories developed in the 1960s and 1970s are also in need of updating. The search for new theoretical constructs is now underway, especially in collaborative research efforts in the European union, and to further this search in Australia, each of the presenters will be asked to address a number of questions to explore this theme with reference to the theoretical framework, research design and methodology of their project.

1. Lifespan approaches to ageing

This theme will take up the view of ageing as a developmental process commencing in early life. Although biologists define aging as development post-reproduction, other areas of gerontology are increasingly becoming aware of how early and mid-life experiences shape trajectories in late life. For example, recent epidemiological research has shown that low birth-weight babies have increased risk of cardiovascular disease, suggesting that prenatal development already influences how we will age. Mid-life obesity and hypertension have been shown to be more important than late life obesity and hypertension in determining health status in later life, including dementia risk. Education, which mostly occurs during childhood and early adulthood, is one of the strongest predictors of many outcomes in late life. As a proxy for socio-economic advantage, education reflects a myriad of social determinants of well-being and capacity to adjust to life-course transitions. Adoption of a lifespan perspective has significant implications for the discipline of Gerontology, and for extending the scope and timeframe of policies aimed at addressing inequalities in old age.

2. Biological ageing in a socio-cultural context

A large amount of research in ageing has focused on disease and disability, with good reason. However, biological and medical researchers are giving growing recognition to the importance of social and cultural influences on health and disease in general, and on mental heath in particular. Epidemiological research has drawn attention to the cultural component of factors such as diet, alcohol consumption and physical activity, and the need to take account of differential exposure to risk factors between cultures as well as between individuals. Similarly, social networks and social connectedness have to be investigated not only as they influence well-being directly, and also indirectly by providing access to resources and services. Mobility, for example, can be viewed at the person level in terms of an individual’s capacity to walk and drive, and in terms of how mobility is enabled through public transport, community based services and social networks that allow individuals to connect. This theme will explore how the outcomes of modelling of well-being and ageing change as the range of variables included in analytic models is expanded to incorporate social and cultural factors at group and spatial levels as well as individual level variables.

3. The political economy of ageing

Theoretical approaches to ageing based on policy economy identify social institutions and policy decisions per se as having significant effects on ageing. Ageing is viewed as a process that occurs in political, economic and social contexts, with changes in these contexts in turn having major influences on outcomes for successive cohorts as they age. Particular attention needs to be given to policy measures and trends that have long term effects and that mature over many years as social structures and institutions change. Among the major changes in Australian society and political economy that occurred in the 1970s and that have shaped life-course transitions of the baby boomers who are now ageing include increased access to tertiary education and increased workforce participation for women, and changes in family formation consequent upon reform of divorce law. More recent changes include changes in labour market conditions and the extension of superannuation coverage, and most recently, the National Action Plan on Mental Health. Variations in well-being at older ages can only be fully understood through research designs that take account of the impacts of changes in social, economic and policy contexts by relating data on individual experiences of ageing to the changing contexts in which different stages of the life-course have been experienced.