MaxHel Center for Social Inequalities in Population Health
The Max Planck – University of Helsinki Center for Social Inequalities in Population Health builds on old and new conceptual insights and a completely unique data landscape, with complementary expertise from the Population Research Unit (PRU) of the University of Helsinki and the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR).
Inequalities in mortality

Inequalities in length of life are the most fundamental of inequalities, as all other inequalities are conditional on being alive. Mortality inequalities are socially patterned, observed in all societies, and growing. Despite considerable contributions by many previous studies, there are major shortcomings in our understanding of the causes of social inequalities in health and mortality. In particular:

  • The causes of change in health inequalities over time and in different social and economic conditions remain unclear.
  • An overly individualized approach to studying health has failed to account for the fact that health inequalities are produced and maintained in families, which vary in size, generational length, social acceptability, and complexity.
  • The interplay between the social and genetic processes that underlie health inequalities is largely unknown.
  • The integration of demographic methods, causal inference approaches in epidemiology, and machine learning approaches for the study of social inequalities in health remains weak.
About the Center

The Max Planck – University of Helsinki Center goes beyond standard observational research by using exceptionally detailed linked family-based data, natural experimental designs, genetically-informed social epidemiological data, and advanced dynamic modelling techniques that enable us to unearth the pivotal social processes that generate health inequalities. Our findings will be ground-breaking as they respond to the four major shortcomings of existing research by elucidating from the root causes of social inequalities in health. The research will be highly innovative and will establish how social family constellations and genetic factors are intertwined with individual social characteristics and how they produce health inequalities, how they drive long-term change in these inequalities, and how they manifest themselves differentially in different macro-level social conditions.

Research agenda

The Center research agenda is based on four thematic pillars:

  1. Family; to assess the causes of long-term changes in health inequalities and to establish the contribution of social family factors and multigenerational interdependencies in the production of social inequalities in health
  2. Genetic factors; to estimate the effects of social position on health by employing genetic information and to assess how genetic associations are mediated or modified by family and social position
  3. Comparisons; to evaluate variations in explanations of social inequalities in health by means of international comparative research, and to analyze macro-level contextual modifiers
  4. Methods; to advance causal multistate modeling and to integrate recent advances in counterfactual analysis from neighboring disciplines to inform analyses in Themes 1-3, and demography and population health research more generally.

The need to better understand the root causes of health inequalities is more pertinent than ever. Social inequalities in health and mortality have grown and the unprecedented health and social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may hit the vulnerable the hardest, further exacerbating health gaps. Our results will advance scientific understanding of the drivers of health inequalities, and will help to devise policies to tackle these inequalities.


Pekka Martikainen is Director of the Population Research Unit (PRU) at the University of Helsinki, and Professor of Demography. He holds a PhD in Population Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Current research interests include changes and causes of socioeconomic differences in cause-specific mortality, various issues relating to ageing populations, and he has been involved in cross-national comparisons of health inequalities.

Mikko Myrskylä is Director of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) and Professor of Social Data Science at the University of Helsinki. Prof. Myrskylä holds PhDs in Demography (University of Pennsylvania) and Statistics (University of Helsinki). His work focuses on population health, fertility dynamics, and demographic forecasting, and leverages large linked population registers, causal inference approaches, and formal demography.