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Research insight: behind the scenes on why Scouts and Guides participation boosts later life health

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Research Data Scotland

21 Dec 2022

We speak to co-author Dr Lynne Adair for an in-depth perspective on a new paper that suggests taking part in the Scouts or Guides is associated with better general health in middle age.

New research from the Scottish Centre For Administrative Data Research found that people who were part of the Scouts or Guides as children are likely to have better general health as adults. 

The study was published in the journal of European Journal of Public Health and led by Professor Chris Dibben and was co-authored by Research Data Scotland’s Data Curation Manager, Dr Lynne Adair. It found children who participated in these organisations were around 35 per cent more likely to report excellent health at age 50 compared to their peers. 

Read the study

We spoke to Dr Adair about how the research was undertaken, the difficulties in accessing public sector data, and how similar research can pave the way for policies that improve lives in Scotland. 

What was your role in the study? 

I was initially the lead researcher on the study. I drafted the project proposal, applied for ethical approval, and applied for access to the data. Once the data was obtained, I did some preliminary analysis.  

When I moved onto a new role at the Scottish Longitudinal Study, a new researcher, Dr Laurie Berrie was employed, who did the majority of the work. However, I remained as part of the project team. 

What data sources were used, and how was data accessed? 

The data we used were from the Aberdeen Children of the 1950s (ACONF) study. ACONF followed a cohort of individuals born in Aberdeen between 1950 and 1956. 

These individuals were first surveyed in 1962 whilst at school, and early-life data were obtained from birth certificates and school and hospital records. In 1964, a random sample of them were asked about family circumstances, attitudes and behaviour , including membership in organisations such as the Scouts and the Guides. They were then traced for a further follow-up questionnaire in the early 2000s, including self-reported health. 

An earlier study using a different cohort found that participation in Guides or Scouts was associated with better mental health and narrower mental health inequalities at age 50. We wanted to use a Scottish population cohort (in this case, data from the ACONF study) to look at general health outcomes, to see if similar results would be found.  

There were 1333 participants in our cohort. We used these this data to model the participants’ self-reported health around age 50 and looked at whether this was different for those who attended youth movements (such as the Guides and Scouts) compared to their peers who did not. To do this, we also took into account differences in socioeconomic situation in childhood, a child’s health, well-being and development, and parental support and engagement in their child’s development. 

Further research is planned to explore the previously reported link between youth movement attendance and adult mental health, and aims to link ACONF data with individual prescription records for mental health to achieve this. 

“Because many of the organisations that deliver these youth programmes are charities supported by volunteers, they may represent a very cost-effective method of delivering population health.”

Dr Lynne Adair

What obstacles are there in accessing data like this? 

Data from sources such as the ACONF study is only available to approved researchers within a safe haven environment. While this is important to ensure that sensitive data is kept secure and usage is transparent, it can create obstacles for researchers. 

Short-term funding of researchers and long lead-times to access and link administrative data can mean that it is difficult to sustain a long-term research career using this type of data, and can have a knock-on effect on the number of timely publications researchers are able to produce.

Thanks to their well-managed access processes, the lead time for accessing ACONF data was only a matter of months, however it can take significantly longer to access data in other circumstances.  

What considerations need to be taken when dealing with public sector data and data linkage? 

Unlike the majority of public sector data, ACONF data was explicitly collected for research purposes. However, the data was collected with a particular purpose in mind – the researchers aimed to investigate the occurrence and causes of learning disabilities in a distinct population. As a result, the variables available may not be ideal to answer research questions that fall outside of this scope. 

However, as ACONF survey data has been linked to other administrative data (such as health and birth records) this allowed for investigation across the lifecourse, looking at  the factors in infancy and childhood which can shape health and disease in adult life. 

How could this research help inform policies or improve lives? 

This research found a positive relationship between Scout and Guide participation and adult health. Because many of the organisations that deliver these youth programmes are charities supported by volunteers, they may represent a very cost-effective method of delivering population health. 

Read about the research on the Scottish Centre for Administrative Research website.

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