Insights into our ‘life course of place’ project. Part 1: constructing residential histories over seven decades

By Catherine Tisch

We’re investigating whether and how the neighbourhoods we live in throughout our lives might influence our health.  Our health and wellbeing may reflect an accumulation of influences from the different places we’ve lived during our lives as well as where we currently live.  This seems entirely plausible but tellingly is a topic under-researched for a variety of reasons (which we’ve blogged about previously) including the difficulty in accessing historical neighbourhood-level environmental data through time.  The CRESH team are leading a piece of work that is (1) exploring how aspects of the physical, built and social environments have changed in Edinburgh neighbourhoods over the past 100 years and (2) examining how exposures to these different environments has influenced the health and wellbeing of people now in their 70s.  This research feeds in to a wider EPSRC-funded project called “Mobility, Mood and Place” which is showing how places can be designed to make mobility easy, enjoyable and meaningful for older people.

Our health and wellbeing measures for this study come from a group of people called the Lothian Birth Cohort who were born in 1936 (LBC1936).  In 1947, almost all Scottish school children born in 1936 (~70,000 11 year old children) took part in a cognitive ability test as part of the Scottish Mental Health Survey.  Approximately 60 years after the original test, just over 1000 of these individuals who were living in Edinburgh and surrounds re-sat the same intelligence test (wave 1 of the study, 2004-2006).  The participants continue to provide information on a range of health-related outcomes and behaviours (wave 4 is taking place now, 2014-2016) such as their smoking, alcohol consumption and physical activity levels and measures of mood and lung function (further details on LBC1936 can be found here).

There are two key problems we have to overcome to address our project aims: (1) knowing where the participants lived between the ages of 11 and 70+ years, and (2) knowing what their neighbourhood environments were like throughout their lives.  This blog will describe how we’re going about addressing the first challenge and a subsequent blog will describe the latter (building on the work described in one of our earlier blog posts).

So, how to work out where the cohort participants lived throughout their lives?  From the LBC1936 surveys we know the address of the participants at age 11 and in subsequent waves but there is a 60+ year gap where their home address details are unknown.  This is an example of a problem faced by many studies that follow people over time where it is almost inevitable that research interests and priorities change and evolve and new data is required.    Our study needs residential addresses so we can spatially link the participants to the various longitudinal environmental measures that we are reconstructing from archive material.  We used the ‘life grid method’ as an aid to help the participants recall their residential addresses with the goal of collecting at least one address for every decade.  It’s based on the premise that notable global, local and personal events can be used to help people order their thoughts and jog memories e.g. “where did you live when Princess Diana died?”  Below is an excerpt from the life grid we developed to collect home address and occupation details from the cohort participants.  Occupational histories might provide further insights into health behaviours, outcomes and personal trajectories of the participants.  We are currently transcribing and geocoding the life grids but so far there seems to be few instances of missing data which we see as a success of the method chosen to elucidate these details.  We see the life grid as an effective method that other researchers could use to retrospectively collect data from cohort participants.


Part of the life grid which cohort participants filled out

Our project runs through until late 2016 so keep an eye out for further developments and updates.

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