Riding the wave of the Silver Tsunami: understanding the link between families and health in old age

18 Oct 2019

A UQ PhD candidate has uncovered a link between families and health in old age.

The impact of a parent’s health on their children throughout their formative years is well-understood, but new research is suggesting that the opposite is also true; ageing adults are healthier if their children are healthy too.

For the first time in history, in a phenomenon known as the ‘silver tsunami’, the number of people worldwide over the age of 65 now outnumbers children under the age of five.

To help understand potential impacts of this silver tsunami, Kieu My Tran, a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland’s School of Economics and Centre for the Business and Economics of Health has developed an economic model that investigates the link between the health of children and their ageing parents.

“In spite of the fact that older people are living longer, there is little evidence to suggest that they are living healthier lives,” she said. 

”Understanding what contributes to poor health is key to improving the outcomes for ageing men and women across the world,” Tran said.

Tran’s model is based on the idea that families share resources, and even as an adult, when a child is ill, they will receive support from their parents.

This support might come in the form of financial support with medical expenses, physical support with chores or minding the kids, or emotional support to help negotiate the challenges of illness.

However, in providing support to their adult children, parents leave themselves vulnerable to stress and health issues as their own resources are depleted.

PhD candidate Michelle Tran

“The data indicated that having an adult child with one or more chronic health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, heart attack, blood pressure or diabetes leads to negative effects on the parents’ health,” Tran said.

The economics of ageing is an area that is receiving increasing attention across the board, but for Tran, the decision to pursue research in this area was motivated by her supervisor: Professor Brenda Gannon – an international expert in the field of ageing economics.

Her first exposure to the economics of ageing was when she was working with Professor Gannon and her team at CBEH to investigate the effect of Consumer Directed Care (CDC) model to healthcare utilization in Australia. She was immediately interested and found the area extremely important in today’s world where every country is experiencing growth in the ageing population.

“Everyone is someone’s son, daughter, father or mother,” she said.

“My own mother is going to get old one day, so I hope that by gaining a better understanding of these phenomena we can help prevent illness, disease and disability, and improve the lives of the people we love.”

In addition to improving the outlook for the ageing population, Tran’s research has the potential to inform health policy and campaigns.

“Currently, health policies view an individual as a single entity.

“But, by looking at an individual as a member of a family, the need for support and financial assistance for an individual with a sick child will be different to someone with otherwise healthy children,” Tran said.

“The message for health campaigns could change too, shifting the focus from the personal benefits of exercise or eating well to ‘do it for your family’.”

As the winner of the BEL Faculty 2019 Three Minute Thesis (3MT) final on 9 August, Tran has improved her confidence in both public speaking and communicating her research to non-specialist groups.

Since competing in 3MT, Tran has presented her research at a doctoral workshop at the Australian Health Economics Society Conference in September, winning an award for ‘best presenter’—a result she attributes to the experience gained speaking at 3MT.

Tran urges any HDR students considering participating in 3MT to ‘just do it’.

“I’ve gained connections, been exposed to different networks and have really been able to get my research out into the world, which is vital as a PhD student.”

“Don’t be scared or think that your topic is too difficult to explain, that’s all part of the challenge. And practice, practice, practice—on anyone and everyone!”

Contact: BEL Communications, media@bel.uq.edu.au

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Watch the BEL Faculty finalists 3MT presentations.