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Open the door to a world of data

Picture of Dr. Partha Bhattacharyya
Program Director,
Division of Behavioral and Social Research (DBSR)

Question: What do these study questions from published papers have in common?

  • What’s the relationship between widowhood and depression in the United States, Europe, Korea, and China?
  • How and why do disability and morbidity among older people differ across 30 countries and three continents?
  • Does making transportation universally accessible through free bus passes for older people in the United Kingdom reduce social isolation and increase physical activity?

Answer: The authors all used data provided by the Gateway to Global Aging Data, an NIA-funded website at the University of Southern California that enables longitudinal and cross-national comparisons of the health, social, and economic status of older people.

A family of international studies on aging

If you’re involved in aging research, you’ve probably heard of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). This longitudinal study of a nationally representative sample of people over age 50 has been supported by the NIA for more than 25 years. The HRS tracks the physical, emotional, and economic well-being of approximately 22,000 people in the United States. The HRS contains program data from Social Security and Medicare; study data have been used in more than 4,000 papers since 1993.

You may not have heard that the HRS served as the model for subsequent studies around the world. Right now, researchers in Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, Korea, Japan, China, Indonesia, India, South Africa, Israel, England, Ireland, and more than 20 other European countries are collecting data on older people in these sister studies. While none of the studies are exactly like the HRS, they were created to be comparable to the HRS and to each other.

A treasure trove of data

The Gateway to Global Aging Data is the best place to learn about the content of the HRS and its sister studies. Not only does the Gateway provide overviews of 15 studies, but it also includes all of the survey questions asked in these studies (translated into English), along with flow-charts for most of the questionnaires. It’s easy to find exactly what you’re looking for: You can search questionnaires by keyword or topic using the concordance or look at documentation tables by domain that summarize cross-study compatibility. You can even search through thousands of publications from the HRS and its sister studies to see what other researchers have learned from these studies.

The recently updated, interactive Graphs and Tables page can produce population estimates for you in seconds. With more than 100 topics, 29 countries, 14 individual-level subpopulations, and 10 household-level subpopulations spanning more than 20 years of data, you’re bound to find something that piques your interest. In addition to seeing your topic in a traditional graph or table format, you can now also visualize that data across a map of the globe.

You can browse the website’s offerings at the Gateway to Global Aging Data website. In addition to the demographic, health, health care utilization and insurance, cognition, assets, income, family, employment, and retirement variables that have been present since 2015, the Gateway staff are adding new variables on a regular basis. When you’re ready to download data or a codebook, registration is easy and free.

Has all this information given you a great idea for a paper? Or maybe a grant application to conduct an analysis in your field of interest? If so, I urge you to use the Gateway’s harmonized data files and concordance information as a resource!


Submitted by Rose E. Constantino on December 19, 2018

We at the University of Pittsburgh and Centro Escolar University, Manila, Philippines are collaborating on a study on the HEARTS of older adults in the Philippines. Is there a way of collaborating with the gateway to Global Aging Data or other research groups on aging?

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