Understanding the changing picture of social relationships and well-being: A collaborative research network between the UK and Japan (UK-Japan SWAN)

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Epidemiology and Public Health

Abstract

Social relationships are central to human experience and impact people's thoughts, feelings and behaviours. They embed individuals within wider networks and communities and provide opportunities for different forms of social and cultural participation. These different dimensions of social relationships have been overwhelming demonstrated as key determinants of positive subjective well-being across the life-course and to play an important role in successful ageing.

However, nowadays significant numbers of people across the globe lack social connections and suffer from loneliness, namely, dissatisfaction with the frequency and closeness of one's social relationships. In 2011, around 7.1 million people in England and Wales lived alone, and 12.8% of them were aged 65 and over. At the same time, 16.8% of Japanese people aged 65 and over lived alone, and this proportion increased to 18% in just 4 years. Further contemporary sociodemographic and economic trends, such as the growth of the ageing population, decline in marriage and birth rates, fragmented careers, increasing challenge of work-life balance and the rise and popularity of online and digital social networks are likely to contribute to significant changes to romantic, family and at work relationships, with currently under-explored implications for subjective well-being.

Appreciating cultural context in social well-being is key. Norms and expectations regarding interdependence, closeness and social support in relationships are shaped by culture. Similarly, forms of social and cultural participation are shaped by cultural and historical heritage. However, to date, the majority of research comes from Western populations, and there are surprisingly few current, cross-cultural comparisons of i) different dimensions of social relationships and ii) their role in promoting well-being.

Given a distinct cultural context, yet similar sociodemographic and economic challenges, comparisons between the UK and Japan offer unique opportunities to increase our understanding of social relationships, their future trends and the implications for well-being. Such comparative studies may help to elucidate, among others, the 'Japanese paradox' - lower rates of subjective well-being in Japan despite its leading position in life expectancy rankings. However, to date, there have been very few comparative studies between UK and Japan despite the existence of readily available data sources, such as the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and the Japan Study of Aging and Retirement.

UK-Japan Social Well-being across Ageing Nations (UK-Japan SWAN) will bring together existing research networks in the area of social well-being in the UK and Japan to establish active research partnerships, exchange examples of best practice, and facilitate access to existing rich data sources. The network will aim to advance current understanding of culturally-sensitive measures of social relationships, social participation and well-being as well as advocate their use in large-scale population studies. Ultimately, UK-Japan SWAN will strive to increase the understanding of the interplay between culture, social relationships and well-being in ageing populations as well as forecast their future trends and implications for younger generations.

Planned Impact

Loneliness, social isolation and low levels of subjective well-being are a major societal and public health challenge faced by an ever-increasing number of ageing populations. There is, therefore, an urgent need to identify and support novel approaches aimed at preventing loneliness as well as promoting social connectedness and well-being. The UK-Japan SWAN network will provide much-needed resources to generate more, higher quality evidence on current and future trends in social well-being in ageing populations, necessary to inform policy.

The UK-Japan SWAN network will engage with non-academic beneficiaries, namely policy researchers, think tanks and relevant charities, and policymakers. For instance, we will involve civil servants and politicians in the UK government departments (e.g. Representatives of the Technical Advisory Group on Loneliness from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport currently conducted on behalf Tracey Crouch, MP for Loneliness) and relevant Select Committees and All-Party Parliamentary Groups (e.g. APPG Arts, Health and Well-being; Health and Social Care Committee, APPG Ageing and Older People, APPG Dementia). Third-sector organisations will also be actively included, such as the King's Fund, Age UK, and the Campaign to End Loneliness and the Centre for Ageing Better. Additionally, the project partner, ILC-UK, think tank at the front line of the ageing-related social problems will advise us on maximising delivery of a lasting societal impact.

An academic impact from the project outputs will be generated through increasing awareness and use of secondary data sources; understanding of culturally-sensitive measures of social relationships and well-being; as well as facilitating knowledge exchange and collaboration between UK- and Japan-based researchers working in the fields of sociology, demography, arts and culture, statistics, epidemiology, gerontology, social policy and global well-being.

In an immediate term, the project outputs will facilitate further cross-national comparative investigations on social relationships and well-being and emphasise the value of longitudinal studies in both countries. In a longer term, UK-Japan SWAN will help academic and non-academic users to understand the changing picture of social relationships and well-being in ageing populations as well as forecast their future trends and implications for younger generations.

Publications

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Brunner E (2020) Economic growth, population health and Sustainable Development Goal 8 in European Journal of Public Health

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Fancourt D (2019) Cultural engagement and incident depression in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. in The British journal of psychiatry : the journal of mental science

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Ito K (2020) Wider Dental Care Coverage Associated with Lower Oral Health Inequalities: A Comparison Study between Japan and England. in International journal of environmental research and public health

 
Description The main aim of the UK-Japan SWAN project is to provide data resources to early career researchers in facilitating cross-national comparative studies. We disseminated our deliverables at two research symposiums (Japan and UK) and a policy seminar.

Key findings from our outputs from this project are:
• More older people are socially isolated in Japan than in England, but isolation is more strongly linked to poor health in England.
• Older men were more likely to be socially isolated than older women in both Japan and England and were more likely to suffer poor health.
• Most older people have little or no regular engagement with arts activities.
• Those older people who do have sustained engagement with the arts also report better health.
• Methodologically, cultural norms can mean that people in different countries tend to answer the same questions differently for interpretation despite using the same questionnaire.
• Translation of the same questionnaire may be biased by the language which cannot be translated clearly, for example, "Did you feel full of pep?" Researchers should ask multiple questions to try to eradicate such bias and triangulate with objective measures when measuring health outcomes.

In recognising this, the SWAN team explored existing secondary datasets between the UK (ELSA, UKHLS) and Japan (JSTAR, J-SHINE) and created a comprehensive list of social relationships and health variables be used for cross-national comparative work. Taking advantages of rich knowledge of cultural usage in English and Japanese languages, we also back-translated 3 item- UCLA loneliness scale, which is used in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing into Japanese. A validation study is published, showing that good translated work can similarly measure 'loneliness' regardless of country or culture.
Culture can be modelled to explore contextual differences or causal inference of social relationships, depending on the theorised assumptions. Statistical examination of comparability in the harmonised measurements can ascertain the validity of cross-national comparative work.
Experts and stakeholders in both the UK and Japan agreed that contexts and practices of social relationships change over time which we all have to consider and continue to work on defining and validating the measures. Current measures of social relationships only focus on people in the networks; however, we could also explore the contexts of social relationships, i.e. focal meeting points.
Exploitation Route The list of the variables is published on the SOCCAH website; early career researchers interested in cross-national comparative work can take advantage of the resources. The collaboration with the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study (JAGES) group yielded a validated loneliness scale used in their survey, the publication of cross-national comparative work, and further collaboration in reporting internet use and healthy ageing in Japan, commissioned by the WHO West Pacific Region.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://soccah-network.org/
 
Description UK-Japan SWAN involved in several public engagements before the pandemic. Through public engagement, the general public, school students realised the significance of social connections and inclusiveness in today's society with a growing ageing population. They were more aware of how social isolation and poor mental health are threats to healthy ageing. Since the pandemic, mass-gathering was impossible; however, the SWAN's public engagement is thrived using a remote meeting platform, Zoom. All proceedings from the engagement were recorded and archived on the SOCCAH website and are expected to keep generating impact. Partnership with ILC-UK and collaboration with the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study (JAGES) group led to potential impact generating activities at a later time. Collaborating with JAGES, Cable will submit a report on her examination on internet usage and functional disability among older people in Japan that was commissioned by the WHO West Pacific Region Office. Taking the theme of healthy ageing forward, Cable will facilitate experts' discussion between the UK and Japan about vaccination and healthy ageing that is organised by the ILC-UK.
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Education,Healthcare
Impact Types Cultural,Policy & public services

 
Description UK-Japan crossnational comparative research work
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
URL https://www.dropbox.com/s/5nmgohl27jqoxvz/Cable-talk.m4v?dl=0
 
Description 2019 SLLS conference symposium, Potsdam Germany: Ageing and Future direction 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The SLLS symposium, Ageing and Future direction is a part of UK-Japan SWAN academic engagement activities, consisted of three talks (1) Future Projection of the Health and Functional Status of Older People in Japan: A PseudoPanel Microsimulation Model (Kasajima: on behalf of Hashimoto (Co-I)); (2)Biological Costs and Benefits of Social Relationships for Men and Women Early, Mid and Late Adulthood: The Role of Partner, Family and Friends (Chandola, (Co-I), (3) Understanding the Pictures of Social Relationships and Ageing Well-being Across Ageing Nations (SWAN): UK-Japan SWAN Project (Cable, (PI)). Research presentations sparked debates on modelling including the application of biomarker, i.e. Allostatic load to social relationship research. UK-Japan SWAN project was received well, inspiring debates on cultural differences on measurements.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Academic knowledge exchange at the Culture, Class, Connection: Bridging debates on class and inequality in the UK and Japan conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This event was hosted by an ESRC funded project, Culture, Class, Connection: Bridging debates on class and inequality in the UK and Japan and held at Newcastle University. 20 postgraduate students and academics from Japan and the UK attended the conference. I presented my paper, 'Social norms and collectivism in Japan', discussing how culture shapes social class in Japan as well as collective values. My talk sparked interests in culture and values in Japan that commented by 'I did not even consider such thing before' as well as theoretical debates on social organisation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://conferences.ncl.ac.uk/culture,class,connection/
 
Description One week UCL visit by the Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study group 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Japan Gerontological Evaluation Study group visited the PI, Cable to discuss cross-national comparative work with UK-Japan SWAN. They discussed how measurements in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing and how their harmonised items in their study could be compatible with each other. One week visit consisted of research paper discussion and an internal seminar as well as discussion with an expert in social inclusion, Professor David Morris (University of Central Lancaster). Three work are already submitted for a peer review.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Sharing expert knowledge at the UCL -Japan Youth Challenge 26 July 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact UCL created a special summer school, "UCL-Japan Young Challenge" in 2015 to celebrate the history of Japanese students studied at UCL in 19C who changed the history of Japan. More than 500 audiences, students, teachers and the general public attended the symposium organised by the UCL. I presented the talk, 'Healthy longevity: Social connections as accessibility', discussing recent demographic changes in Japan and social fragmentation as well as significant roles of social connections in healthy ageing. It inspired students' perception of ageing and their future role in UK/Japanese society which they shared with all participants in the end.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.ucl-japan-youth-challenge.com/
 
Description UK-Japan SWAN Japan method symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The UK-Japan SWAN Japan method symposium is held at the University of Tokyo, in Japan 19 November 2019.
The room was filled with early career and experienced researchers alike. We were also joined by practitioners, an author of social isolation book and a founder of the Japan social relationship association. The talk started with culture and social relationships, followed by an introduction to data resources available to conduct cross-national comparative work. The talk includes the introduction of the Gateway to Global Ageing, the harmonised data platform which contains two sets of data being used in the SWAN project and sharing a range of variables that are related to social relationships and well-being from the household panel studies JSTAR, ELSA, JSHINE and UKHLS.
Professor Chandola (Co-I) gave a keynote lecture, discussing measurement invariance, a key concept in comparative work. Students were provided with research examples and statistical approaches to help them assess measurement invariance.
Last part of the symposium was a small group discussion, mainly on themes of possible research questions, and what else could be asked in the context of social relationship and ageing. We also discussed other potential datasets and the lifecourse of family, social support, networks and isolation in relation to ageing-related health and social care use. Many of the attendees said they found the symposium informative and inspiring and especially appreciated the opportunity to engage in intensive discussion with other researchers from different disciplines.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://soccah-network.org/
 
Description UK-Japan SWAN UK Method Sympoisum 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The UK-Japan SWAN Method Symposium is to facilitate research dialogue, primarily among the UK early career researchers whose research interests are in social relationships and healthy ageing. Since the pandemic, the delivery mode was shifted from mass gathering to remote presentation. via Zoom. The one-day workshop programme was changed to a weekly seminar-style (1 hour), starting from 9 November until 30 November. We attracted around 30 audiences for each presentation. Each seminar sparked questions, ranging from the data resources, debates on culture, cross-national comparative methods, and loneliness in the UK and Japan. We received notes and remarks expressing that the symposium changed their way of applying the concepts of social relationships and well-being. All slides from the symposium are accessible via the SOCCAH website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL http://soccah-network.org/blog/uk-methods-symposium/
 
Description UK-Japan SWAN policy seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact The policy seminar is the final milestone of the UK-Japan SWAN project by bringing researchers and policy workers together for future collaboration. Because of the pandemic and the UK policies for mass gathering, this event is delivered remotely using Zoom. The main programme is divided into two: Research presentation in the morning and policy dialogue in the afternoon. The event generated huge interests having around 70 people for the event. The audience was informed by the evidence that social isolation leads to poor health and disabilities among older adults in both UK and Japan, social participation including engagement with arts can change the course, while we have data and methodology to conduct research to evaluate relevant interventions. During the afternoon session, the discussion went further, agreeing to evaluate focal points where briding takes place for social connection in relation to social isolation and well-being. The research presentation was recorded and shared via the ILC-UK website.
This led to further engagements via blog, published at the SWAN website (http://soccah-network.org/blog/healthy-ageing-after-covid-19-some-lessons-from-the-swan-project-on-social-wellbeing-in-ageing-nations/)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://ilcuk.org.uk/virtual-policy-event-swan-understanding-social-relationships-in-japan-and-the-u...