New Max Planck Center for Social Inequalities in Population Health starts in Helsinki and Rostock

Researchers analyze how social family constellations, genetic factors, and individual social characteristics together produce health inequalities.

Starting in July, the MaxHel: Max Planck l University of Helsinki Center for Social Inequalities in Population Health aims to uncover the central social processes that generate health inequalities, building on novel conceptual insights and a completely unique data landscape.

“The Center analyzes how social family constellations, genetic factors, and individual social characteristics together produce health inequalities,” says Mikko Myrskylä, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock.

A team of 14 postdoctoral researchers and PhD students based in Helsinki and Rostock, Germany, will investigate the causes of social inequalities, the drivers of long-term trends in inequalities, and how these inequalities manifest themselves differently under different macro-level social conditions.

“MaxHel goes beyond standard observational research. We use exceptionally detailed linked family-based data, natural experimental designs, genetically informed social epidemiological data, and advanced dynamic modeling techniques. Uniquely, all these data are currently available at the University of Helsinki,” says Pekka Martikainen, Professor of Demography at the University of Helsinki's Population Research Unit and the other director of the center.

In May 2023, a cooperation agreement was signed between the Max Planck Society and the University of Helsinki, both of which contribute to the Center's budget of more than 5 million euros. Center Directors Myrskylä and Martikainen have successfully raised 2.5 million euros from the Max Planck Society, 2 million euros from the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation, 1 million euros from the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, and 0.5 million euros from the University of Helsinki.

The Center's research agenda is based on four thematic pillars

FAMILY: To assess the causes of long-term changes in health inequalities and to identify the contribution of family social factors and intergenerational interdependencies in the production of social inequalities in health.         

GENETIC FACTORS: To estimate the effects of social position on health using genetic information and to assess how genetic associations are mediated or modified by family and social position.

COMPARISONS: to evaluate variations in explanations of social inequalities in health through international comparative research.

METHODS: to advance causal multistate modeling and integrate recent advances in counterfactual analysis from neighboring disciplines to inform analyses in Family, Genetic Factors, Comparisons, and demography and population health research more generally.

The need to better understand the causes of health disparities is more relevant than ever.

“Social inequalities in health and mortality have increased, and the unprecedented health and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may hit the most vulnerable hardest, further exacerbating health disparities,” says Mikko Myrskylä.

Read more about the Center.