Doctoral studies

The doctoral thesis looked into the relationship between social resources, such as social networks and socioeconomic status, and health of middle-aged and older people.

The social networks and socioeconomic status a person establishes throughout life can have an impact on their health over time. Such support systems can either improve health or exacerbate the negative effects of experiencing chronic disease and stress. Liili Abuladze, a doctoral student of demography at the Tallinn University School of Governance, Law and Society, studied the potential protective association between social resources, health and survival among middle-aged and older people in various European countries and Estonia.

Liili Abuladze

Communicating with people in your close network allows you to receive and provide emotional support. Emotional support can improve health by preventing the development of physical or mental disabilities or reducing the stress that comes with them. In this regard, such support can improve a person's daily coping skills or even how long one lives
Abuladze discovered that the social networks of middle-aged and older people in Estonia, particularly those with activity limitations, are on average smaller and more family-oriented than those of their peers in several other European countries. Consequently, opportunities for exchanging emotional support are somewhat limited, owing in part to the long-term low life expectancy. Analyses carried out separately in Estonia and in fourteen European countries revealed that larger networks provided a supportive environment only in terms of women living longer. However, a larger support network did not help women with activity limitations to cope with the stress experienced due to health issues or social exclusion. At the European level, socialising with friends provided relief for people with activity limitations, and women particularly benefitted from the absence of the obligation to support a partner.

Although social relations are thought to play an important role in health and society, there were only a few associations between social network characteristics and survival among middle-aged and older Estonians. The importance of a large close-knit social network for living longer among middle-aged and older Estonian women can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Belonging to a larger social circle contributes to health directly via having access to information or minimal level support, thus extending the length of life. On the other hand, receiving and giving emotional support differs by gender. Middle-aged and older women are typically the primary caregivers for those around them, so the findings may also reflect an association with providing emotional support rather than simply receiving it. However, people with disabilities in Estonia did not have their stressful experiences buffered by their respective networks, pointing to long-standing gaps in the social integration of people with activity limitations.

Another novelty of Abuladze's doctoral thesis compared to previous research lies in the analysis of the accumulation of various life time resources, such as socioeconomic position, in relation to health outcomes in 26 European countries. The research confirmed previous findings that older Europeans who have faced accumulated socioeconomic disadvantage in childhood as well as in adulthood have poorer later life health, as measured by self-rated health, activity limitations and cognitive functioning. Despite Eastern Europeans having lower health indicators in most outcomes and a larger share of people in this region experiencing unfavourable life conditions, the relationship between the accumulation of disadvantages and health was not more marked for older people in Eastern Europe.

Abuladze's research involved analysing data from several waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The links between social network characteristics and survival, let alone the distribution of social networks among people with activity limitations has never been studied in Estonia. Moreover, the Estonian case provided the opportunity to analyse good quality data due to a large and representative sample and the possibility of cross-checking information on deaths from official records. The findings of the research help bring attention to social aspects of health in an era when population ageing and an increasing proportion of people with activity limitations have highlighted the need for better management and funding of social care and healthcare.

Liili Abuladze defended her doctoral thesis titled “Social Resources and Health Outcomes of Middle-Aged and Older Populations” on 4 June. The thesis was supervised by Professor Luule Sakkeus with targeted financing from Tallinn University, Professor Pearl Dykstra from Erasmus University Rotterdam and Martin Klesment, Senior Researcher from Tallinn University. The opponents were Anita Abramowska-Kmon, Assistant Professor from Warsaw School of Economics, and Ella Cohn-Schwartz, Assistant Professor from Ben-Gurion University.