Working Towards Health or Disease? Researchers examine effect of job history on health into old age

Older adult at computer

It’s a rarely explored question upon which Dr. Judith Godin wishes to shed some long-lacking light—how does our lifetime of work affect our health status and trajectory as we get older?

“I want to paint a picture for our policymakers about the effect of occupational history across the life course on long-term health outcomes,” says Dr. Godin, a research associate in the Division of Geriatric Medicine. “It’s important to know if efforts to save money on one end are costing us more in health care on the other end.”

Dr. Godin is working with research assistant Alexandra van der Valk and PhD candidate Lindsay Wallace to analyze data from SHARE, the Survey of Health and Ageing and Retirement in Europe. Launched in 2004, this survey involves more than 120,000 individuals over the age of 50 in 27 European countries, plus Israel. Unlike most surveys of this nature that just ask about major occupations, SHARE examines participants’ complete occupational history.

“We will be able to examine the impact of such factors as job satisfaction, opportunities for advancement, degree of control at work and the physical and mental demands of a job, on people’s long term health,” says Godin. “We can also look at a person’s progress over the course of their working life. Did they enjoy a gradual upward trajectory of income, responsibility, authority and freedom, or did they stagnate or even decline? What was the effect on their finances, stress level and health?”

The team’s findings from the European data can be generalized to Canada to some extent, but Godin says the researchers’ major aim is to find leads that will guide their future analysis of Canadian data. The Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging, for example, will become a rich source of similar information as it gathers more data over time.

“We want to understand how occupational history is related to health trajectory and how this affects a person’s use of health care resources over time,” says Godin. “Understanding this will help to inform healthy public policy in such areas as minimum wage, retirement age and pensions, vacation, benefits, professional development and other important areas that affect people’s wellbeing.”

Dr. Melissa Andrew, a geriatrician at NSHA and leader of the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging’s “Multimorbidity in Relation to Dementia” team, is an advisor to the project. So is Dr. Olga Theou, an NSHA-affiliated scientist in the Division of Geriatric Medicine. The project received an NSHA Research Fund grant to explore the SHARE data.