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Study Spotlight: The Northern Ireland Cohort for the Longitudinal Study of Ageing (NICOLA)

Blog | | Jay Dominy

Older couple on the busOur latest Study Spotlight continues our focus on the devolved nations as we introduce and explore NICOLA’s work in Northern Ireland.

About the study

The Northern Ireland Cohort for the Longitudinal Study of Ageing (NICOLA) is the first large-scale longitudinal population study of ageing in Northern Ireland. It explores how and why certain social, economic and biological factors are changing older people’s lives, helping us to understand what it is like to grow older in Northern Ireland.

NICOLA, which recruited over 8,500 people aged 50 years and over from across Northern Ireland, provides a true representation of the Northern Ireland population. The study has been designed to maximise comparability with other well-established international longitudinal ageing studies, in particular the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), and the Health and Retirement Survey in the United States (HRS).

NICOLA is an important study as it gathers vital data that helps researchers understand which people are more likely to develop cognitive ill-health, such as dementia, and what may have influenced its development. To support this, NICOLA is currently conducting two sub-studies with its participants focusing specifically on the cognitive component of ill-health —HCAP (Harmonised Cognitive Assessment Protocol) and SPACE (Supportive environments for Physical and social Activity, healthy ageing and CognitivE health).

Recent research using the study data has investigated:

Find out more information about the study from Professor Frank Kee in our video introducing NICOLA.

Discover the data

Over the past 10 years, NICOLA has collected a wealth of rich data about the lives of its participants and their partners, including information on demographics, physical and cognitive health, life events, trauma and stress, social connectedness, healthcare utilisation, income and assets, and more! During the second wave, study participants were also asked about living with a disability, housing, transport and driving, and involvement in culture and arts activities. The third wave of the study is expected to go live in May 2024.

The data collected from the health assessment contains a review of cardiovascular and respiratory function, cognitive assessment, grip strength, step up test, body composition, as well as hearing and visual health (the latter including detailed retinal imaging). The blood samples taken have provided a sizeable biochemical biorepository and genetic repository. Some of those who completed the health assessment were also asked to complete a dietary questionnaire.

If you are interested in using NICOLA data from Waves 1 and 2 in your own research, you can use the study’s online data dictionaries to look up detailed information about all the available variables.

For researchers looking for mental health data from NICOLA, you can also find detailed information on the measures available via the Catalogue of Mental Health Measures. Funded as part of a CLOSER project on documenting mental health measures, this catalogue provides information about thousands of standard and non-standard measures of mental health and wellbeing collected in over 50 UK cohort and longitudinal population studies.

Both Wave 1 and Wave 2 data can be accessed via the NICOLA team at Queen’s University Belfast. Wave 1 data is available on the Dementia UK platform and will soon be available on Gateway to Global Aging.

NICOLA aims to encourage and facilitate data access with researchers and research organisations and welcomes proposals for collaborative projects. Find out how to access the data, using the complete guide to submitting a new proposal on the NICOLA website; any queries can be sent to the NICOLA team.

NICOLA is actively enhancing its core dataset through data linkage and is currently linked with the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry. The study team are also working towards linked primary and secondary care data and is part of the linked collaborative work on COVID-19 with the UK Longitudinal Linkage Collaboration (UK LLC).

Response to the COVID-19 pandemic

In response to the pandemic, NICOLA sent out a COVID-19 self-completion questionnaires to participants. This collected relevant data on a range of topics including mental wellbeing, employment and finances, COVID-related health, social connectivity (and more). This data has been included in collaborative work with the UK LLC looking at the impact of COVID-19 across the UK.

Scratching the surface

Of course, this Study Spotlight is only a quick overview of NICOLA and insight into the data it has collected over the years. If you would like to access the data or have any questions about the study, please get in touch with the NICOLA team.

You can keep up to date with all the latest developments on NICOLA and the longitudinal research community, sent direct to your inbox, via our monthly newsletter, Longitudinal News.

Further information

This blog is part of our ‘Study Spotlight’ series. This series showcases the CLOSER partner studies, demonstrating how to make the most of these valuable assets through CLOSER’s research resources. Every month, we turn the spotlight on a new theme, producing a series of blogs that delve into the backgrounds of studies that share similar characteristics, such as their study sample, design, or topics of research interest.    

‘Study Spotlight’ helps you gain a deeper understanding of the studies in our partnership and how you can better utilise these on your research journey.    

Keep an eye out next month as we turn our Study Spotlight on two of our partner studies focusing on local regions in England –Southampton Women’s Survey (SWS) and Wirral Child and Development Study (WCHADS).   

Previous Study Spotlight blogs:   

On Twitter? Follow #StudySpotlight to keep up to date with the series throughout the year. 

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