2019 Fesler-Lampert Chair in Aging Studies: Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, PhD
I am a sociologist and demographer who studies aging and mortality in the United States.
I received my PhD in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2014. My dissertation concerned a problem for all studies that use statistical data to discern aging trajectories: because we see only the people who live long enough to be counted, and because that group is constantly being further whittled down throughout the aging process, the aging trajectories of populations can fundamentally misrepresent what is happening to individuals. My dissertation showed that this problem, often called mortality selection, is more pervasive than had been recognized and that some standard demographic solutions do not work. In subsequent work, I am developing new strategies for uncovering true trajectories in the presence of mortality selection, based on triangulating between multiple kinds of evidence.
From 2014-2016, I was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar at Columbia University. While there, I teamed up with three other postdocs to create a detailed dataset describing urban mortality in the United States in the period 1900-1950. My coauthors and I have used those data to show the extent of racial inequality in mortality during that period: in every year from 1906-1920, and in every region of the country, African-American infectious mortality was higher than white infectious mortality during the unprecedented “Spanish flu” epidemic in 1918.
As a formal (mathematical) demographer, I use mathematical models to describe the relationships between heterogeneous individual trajectories and complex population patterns. Some of my recent work derives new mathematical expressions for relating population average lifespans along multiple dimensions of time (e.g., period and cohort measures).
My research has received awards from the American Sociological Association, European Association for Population Studies, Population Association of America, University of Wisconsin, and University of Minnesota.
What led you to apply to the Fesler-Lampert Chair?
At a certain point during my postdoc, I realized that my two main lines of work—studying mortality at old ages in the contemporary United States, and studying infectious mortality, which primarily affected children, in the early twentieth century United States—were actually describing both ends of the life course for the same cohorts. Naturally, I began to wonder how the two relate to one another.
The people who are elderly today were born during a complete transformation of infectious conditions in the United States, from ubiquitous and frequently fatal to rare and more often treatable. As I read studies suggesting that infectious exposures during infancy and childhood can have permanent effects on health, it began to seem to me that the health and mortality patterns I was studying at old ages might partially be consequences of early exposures—which also suggests that the next waves of elderly might be fundamentally different in their health than those born earlier, before the dramatic decline in infections.
I realized that, to study this, I would need to treat aging more seriously as a process. Instead of simply analyzing health outcomes at older ages, I would need to explore how they came to be that way. The Fesler-Lampert Chair will allow me to make this pivot in my research.
What are some of the projects you plan to work on while F-L Chair? What do you hope to achieve?
I have three interrelated goals during my Fesler-Lampert Chair period. First, I plan to complete the most comprehensive dataset on mortality in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States—not just in urban areas. This will allow me to describe the childhood conditions for the entire country, for the people who are now reaching the ages when most deaths occur.
Second, I plan to use that dataset to analyze how those childhood conditions changed. How much of each birth cohort was exposed to intense levels of infection during their early childhood, and how did that vary by place and by race? When was inequality in exposure at its most extreme?
Third, I plan to relate those cohort exposures to changing cohort patterns of health and mortality at older ages at the population level. Do the birth cohorts with higher levels of early exposure have greater health burdens at old ages? Do they have more variable health at old ages?
What are some of your professional and academic goals after the Chair ends?
The studies I will carry out as the Fesler-Lampert Chair form pilot studies for an ambitious future agenda: to relate detailed immunological trajectories of individuals to the infections they were exposed to in their first years of life. With the support of the Fesler-Lampert Chair, I am proposing a study to the National Institute of Aging to link the historical exposures dataset I am constructing to a dataset that captures individuals’ immune functioning in detail, the Health and Retirement Study.
This will allow me to extend a significant body of aging research that finds that extreme early exposures matter for gross health outcomes (like heart disease or death) by exploring how exposures in the typical historical range matter, and by what immunological mechanisms. Ultimately, this will help us to understand how old-age health in the near future might differ from the recent past.