The report firstly discusses how ageing, longevity and health in older age are affected by the social world and vice versa, secondly summarises the state-of-the-art of (European) research that cross-cuts the biological and the social sciences, and thirdly suggests opportunities for new research in Europe in areas where the biological and social sciences interact. The term “social science” includes, among others: anthropology; demography; economics; epidemiology; geography; health services research; history; political science; psychology, and sociology. The ultimate purpose of the proposed research is a better understanding of ageing processes, the improvement of quality of life in older age, and a balanced development of European societies.

An outline of the interaction between biological and social aspects of ageing emphasises the importance of the distinction between population ageing and individual ageing. Both are affected by social factors, and their study adds to our understanding of ageing across time and space. The report continues by discussing long-term and recent population trends in life expectancy and mortality, and the possible explanations for these trends. The same is done for health outcomes in older age other than mortality, although the population trends are necessarily limited to more recent periods, due to the availability of data. Separate consideration is given to interaction between genetic and environmental factors in ageing, including the recent interest in epigenetics (modification to the pattern of how genes are expressed, which may be induced by factors such as nutrition).

The observed heterogeneity of population ageing trends across European countries is likely to be best understood by combining biological and social scientific insights. Next, the report turns to ageing at the individual level. Evidence from several European studies is discussed that implicates the heterogeneity and even inequality within the ageing populations, and shows how social class, social engagement, life style and psychological mechanisms operate to influence individual life spans and health in older age. The meaning attached to ‘age’ and ‘ageing’ receives particular attention, and it is shown that the way these terms are understood has profound effects on the organisation of society and the self-perception of individuals. We also discuss the negative impacts of age discrimination and segregation, and the necessity for the ageing societies to integrate old people better into societal activities.

The final message is that greater inputs into in different fields of ageing research and particularly greater interaction between biology and the social sciences will be essential if understandings about ageing are to have maximum impact on ageing policy within Europe. Therefore, the strengths and challenges of the current situation of multi- and interdisciplinary research in Europe are described, resulting in several suggestions for the future. These suggestions pertain to several levels: researchers, students, universities, funding agencies, and the national, cross-national and European decision makers. Most importantly, it is suggested to create established research environments for ageing research, support research training, and improve financial possibilities for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research on ageing.

Social Science panel members

Marja Jylha
University of Tampere, Finland

John Bond
Newcastle University, UK

Bernard Jeune
University of Southern Denmark

Dorly Deeg
Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, Netherlands