Information about demography and population health research at the University of Helsinki.

Demography has three faculty positions (two professors and a university lecturer) at the University of Helsinki and around 30 researchers are employed at the Helsinki Institute for Demography and Population Health (known as the Population Research Unit in 1993-2023) by external funding from the Research Council of Finland, the European Union and several private research foundations. 

The research at the Helsinki Institute for Demography and Population Health (PopHel) has traditionally relied on the use of Finnish longitudinal population-based registers, which continue to provide invaluable information for scientific research on various demographic and social phenomena. These data link large representative samples of individual-level records on socio-demographic characteristics with outcomes such as causes of death, use of healthcare, medication purchases, educational and employment outcomes and crime. Besides the extensive register data, we also use genetically informed clinical and survey data, and combine these with register data sources. 

Our research is published in flagship scientific journals such as Science, The Lancet, Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences, and leading journals of demography and sociology of health (e.g., Demography and Social Science and Medicine), epidemiology (e.g., International Journal of Epidemiology and American Journal of Epidemiology), as well as other fields of science (e.g., Addiction, Criminology, and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). 

A particular long-term aim of our research is to provide novel evidence on the factors influencing trends and causes of social inequalities in health and well-being. Such inequalities are driven by a range of more distal socio-structural factors such as educational and labour market processes, income distribution, regional contexts, and long-term social transformations such as population ageing and family change, and more proximate individual-level factors, such as individual characteristics, behaviours, and psychosocial circumstances.

Our researchers use multidimensional causal frameworks for the study of social determinants of health, taking advantage of natural experiment and quasi-experimental study designs to quantify the effects of policies (alcohol tax changes), societal shocks (mass unemployment) or life-events (retirement) for stronger causal inference. Further, we use family designs to disentangle the effects of social and genetic family background from the causal effects of social factors and other risk exposures to health. In comparative studies, we work with our international collaborations to analyse to what degree these effects are universal and to what degree they vary across countries with different macro-level characteristics. These different types of analyses contribute to our theoretical understanding of social determinants of health in pinpointing the relative importance of various causal factors and pathways leading to adverse or beneficial outcomes in health and well-being. 

International and national research collaboration

Research collaboration – both national and international – and researcher mobility are key factors in developing and maintaining the quality of research and doctoral training. PopHel has a wide international research network and a large part of our research is carried out and published in international collaborations with leading scholars from more than 20 countries. Some of the most important international partnerships include University College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, Erasmus Medical Centre, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard School of Public Health, University of Toyama, Osaka City University, Stockholm University, Karolinska Institutet, Oslo University College, University of Copenhagen, and Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock. Our researchers have made both long- and short-term research visits to the universities mentioned above and PopHel has also hosted several international guest researchers and seminars. PopHel members have also supervised and examined several doctoral dissertations in foreign universities.

In Finland we collaborate with the Department of Public Health at the Medical Faculty, University of Helsinki, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, the Finnish Centre for Pensions, the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, the Finnish Institute for Molecular Medicine and Research, and the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy.

Doctoral training

Since 1994, the Helsinki Institute for Demography and Population Health has hosted the doctoral seminar ‘Population, Health and Living Conditions’. The principal aim of the seminar is to train researchers of population health and well-being through rigorous instruction in the theoretical approaches, methods, and empirical analyses, and incorporation of students into departmental research projects that will eventually lead into independent research work. The doctoral training is closely intertwined with the institute's general focus and research projects, and the seminar is run in collaboration with medical sociologists (Faculty of Medicine) and social psychologists (Faculty of Social Sciences).

The doctoral training is based on a twice-a-month research seminar and courses on theory and methods of demography and social epidemiology. The seminar also organises teaching together with the Doctoral Programme in Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki. The training is international with visiting researchers and teachers participating in the seminar work, and long-term collaboration with the Department of Public Health Sciences, Stockholm University, for example. PopHel is a partner in the International Max Planck Research School for Population, Health and Data Science (Rostock, Germany). 

Societal impact

We foster societal interaction by collaborating with the Finnish Ministry of Health and Social Affairs, the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (TTL), Statistics Finland, the Finnish Centre for Pensions (ETK), the Research Institute of the Finnish Economy (ETLA) and the Social Insurance Institution (Kela). Although most of our research is published in international scientific journals, our researchers have also actively published in Finnish-language journals and books with a broader readership. The results published in scientific journals are also disseminated through press releases and social media, and our researchers are frequently approached by the media, with key results receiving also international media coverage.

We have actively participated in governmental working groups that aim to improve the data base for studying and monitoring social determinants of health, and strengthen the links between research and practice. Our research has been used to set targets for the reduction of socioeconomic inequalities in health and mortality in the national action plan and we have attracted funding for policy relevant research topics such as national and global health promotion, public health, the demand and funding for long-term care, and the means for reduction of social inequalities in Europe. Most of our research provides evidence for prevention, health promotion, and improving the level and equal distribution of health among the population.

Where we are

Helsinki Institute for Demography and Population Health 
Unioninkatu 33
00170 Helsinki