Life-course and cohort trajectories of mental health in the UK, 1991–2008 – A multilevel age–period–cohort analysis

Publication type

Journal Article


Publication date

June 1, 2014


There is ongoing debate regarding the shape of life-course trajectories in mental health. Many argue the relationship is U-shaped, with mental health declining with age to mid-life, then improving. However, I argue that these models are beset by the age–period–cohort (APC) identification problem, whereby age, cohort and year of measurement are exactly collinear and their effects cannot be meaningfully separated. This means an apparent life-course effect could be explained by cohorts. This paper critiques two sets of literature: the substantive literature regarding life-course trajectories in mental health, and the methodological literature that claims erroneously to have ‘solved’ the APC identification problem statistically (e.g. using Yang and Land's Hierarchical APC–HAPC-model). I then use a variant of the HAPC model, making strong but justified assumptions that allow the modelling of life-course trajectories in mental health (measured by the General Health Questionnaire) net of any cohort effects, using data from the British Household Panel Survey, 1991–2008. The model additionally employs a complex multilevel structure that allows the relative importance of spatial (households, local authority districts) and temporal (periods, cohorts) levels to be assessed. Mental health is found to increase throughout the life-course; this slows at mid-life before worsening again into old age, but there is no evidence of a U-shape – I argue that such findings result from confounding with cohort processes (whereby more recent cohorts have generally worse mental health). Other covariates were also evaluated; income, smoking, education, social class, urbanity, ethnicity, gender and marriage were all related to mental health, with the latter two in particular affecting life-course and cohort trajectories. The paper shows the importance of understanding APC in life-course research generally, and mental health research in particular.

Published in

Social Science and Medicine

Volume and page numbers

Volume: 120 , p.21 -30







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