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English Longitudinal Study of Ageing

ELSA began in 2002 with a nationally-representative sample of 12,099 individuals aged 50 and over. The original sample was drawn from households that had previously responded to the Health Survey for England (HSE), which is also used to refresh the sample periodically to ensure that it remains representative. Participants are reassessed every two years and longitudinal data spanning 18 years across 9 waves of data collection are available on the original sample members, with 11,981 individuals included in wave 9.

ELSA is a multi-purpose survey collecting objective and subjective measures of physical and mental health, wellbeing, finances and attitudes around ageing and how these change over time. ELSA’s rich dataset is also enhanced by linkage with financial and health registry data.

Data are collected by computer assisted personal interviews (CAPI) in the participants’ homes, and a paper self-completion questionnaire (PAPI) is also given to respondents to complete at each wave. A physical examination is carried out via nurse visits to participants’ homes, during which blood samples are also collected. Newer additions to the study include the online dietary questionnaire Oxford WebQ and a dementia sub-study that used a harmonised cognitive assessment protocol to allow cross-country comparisons.

ELSA data have been used to produce almost 900 publications to date, including policy reports, academic journal articles and conference presentations. It is a key source of data informing policy related to older people, from the formation of pension policy, estimation of social care needs and costs, as well as the benefits of continuing the Freedom Pass scheme.

Other recent findings include:

  • Older people who engage with the arts live longer than those who take part infrequently or not at all.
  • The wealthiest men and women can expect to live an additional eight to nine years free from disability compared to people in the poorest groups.
  • Older people who report high levels of subjective wellbeing live longer and also healthier lives than those with lower levels of wellbeing.
  • Wealthy people age slower with memory declining almost 10 times less than least affluent.
  • Loneliness in older people is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular-related hospital admissions, poorer cognitive function, as well as an increased risk of becoming frail.
  • One in 10 UK adults born in the 1980s will inherit more than half as much money from their parents as the average person earns in a lifetime.
  • Having a meaningful life is associated with better health.
  • People aged 50 and over can expect to have around 10 years working without a limiting health condition.
  • Higher BMI and abdominal obesity are associated with increased dementia incidence.

Sample design

The original ELSA wave 1 sample was designed to represent people aged 50 and over (born on or before 29th February 1952) and their partners, living in private residential addresses in England. The wave 1 sample was selected from households that previously responded to the Health Survey for England (HSE) in 1998,1999 and 2001. The ELSA wave 1 interview took place in 2002-03, providing the baseline for the study.

Age-eligible sample members who responded at wave 1 were renamed core members to distinguish them as the core element of the continuing ELSA sample. Interviews with core members and their partners were attempted every two years following wave 1 (wave 2 in 2004-05, wave 3 in 2006-07, wave 4 in 2008-09, wave 5 in 2010-11, wave 6 in 2012-13, and wave 7 in 2014-15, wave 8 in 2016-17, wave 9 in 2018-19).

To ensure the study remained representative of those aged 50 and over, new cohorts were added at wave 3 (HSE 2011-4), wave 4 (HSE 2006), wave 6 (HSE 2009-11), wave 7 (HSE 2011-12) and wave 9 (HSE 2013-15).

Sample boosts

The Wave 1 original sample was drawn from HSE respondents aged 50+ on the 1st March 2002. As ELSA is a study of those aged 50+, it needs to be periodically refreshed with additional sample members aged from 50. Subsequent refreshment samples are drawn from other HSE years with differing age criteria to correct the age profile of the resulting cohort.

The ELSA sample has been refreshed several times now, at waves 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9. When a refreshment sample is drawn, households from HSE are selected for ELSA if at least one HSE interview was conducted with an age eligible respondent who agreed to be re-contacted. Each refreshment sample added then becomes part of the cohort issued again at subsequent waves.

Linked data

ELSA has agreements with NHS Digital to link with mortality data and Hospital Episodes Statistics, but these data can only be used by the ELSA core team at present. The ELSA dataset is also linked with HMRC and DWP data. The ELSA core team are also working on linkage with local area pollution data.

Management and funding

ELSA is funded by the National Institute on Aging and by a consortium of UK government departments: Department for Health and Social Care; Department for Transport; Department for Work and Pensions, which is coordinated by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). Funding has also been provided by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

ELSA is a collaboration between UCL and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the University of East Anglia, the University of Manchester and the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen).

Accessing the data

Bona fide researchers can download ELSA data from all waves, including wave 0 (HSE) from the UK Data service. Anyone wishing to access the data will need to register with the UK Data Service before downloading. Some datasets are only available via Special License.

Information on how to access other ELSA data including genetic data can be found at on the study website.

Cohort profile

Zaninotto P., Steptoe A. (2019) English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. In: Gu D., Dupre M. (eds) Encyclopedia of Gerontology and Population Aging. Springer, Cham.

Introducing ELSA

ELSA Podcast series

The ELSA Podcast explores how information collected in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing is used in research, practice and policy to help us to better understand what happens to us as we age and how we can live longer, happier, healthier lives.

Related content

Visit the study website