ISER Working Paper Series 2018-11
Biomarkers as precursors of disability
30 Jul 2018
Some social surveys now collect physical measurements and markers derived from biological samples, in addition to self-reported health assessments. This information is expensive to collect; its value in medical epidemiology has been clearly established, but its potential contribution to social science research is less certain. We focused on disability, which results from biological processes but is defined in terms of its implications for social functioning and wellbeing. Using data from waves 2 and 3 of the UK Understanding Society panel survey as our baseline, we estimated predictive models for disability 2-4 years ahead, using a wide range of biomarkers in addition to self-assessed health (SAH) and other socio-economic covariates. We found a quantitatively and statistically significant predictive role for a large set of nurse-collected and blood-based biomarkers, over and above the strong predictive power of self-assessed health. We also applied a latent variable model accounting for the longitudinal nature of observed disability outcomes and measurement error in in SAH and biomarkers. Although SAH performed well as a summary measure, it has shortcomings as a leading indicator of disability, since we found it to be biased in the sense of over- or under-sensitivity to certain biological pathways.