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Fanny Janssen: demographer and epidemiologist

On a sunny afternoon, we pay a visit to demographer Fanny Janssen at the Zernike Campus. She is busy with her new PhD student, who has just arrived from Barcelona and will be collaborating on Janssen’s five-year European research project, for which she was recently awarded a prestigious VIDI grant of EUR 800,000.

Fanny Janssen
Fanny Janssen

The story behind the figures

Fanny Janssen from Limburg never expected to become a demographer in Groningen. ‘I was interested in the combination human and technology. I’m good at maths, but I wanted to do more than just sums. I was interested in the story behind the figures. As a result, I started to concentrate on architecture and environmental and infrastructure planning. Quite by accident here in Groningen I bumped into someone from demography, a senior student option in social geography. And suddenly I knew for sure.’

After completing her Bachelor’s degree in social geography, Janssen took the senior student option (now the Master’s) in demography. Her next move was to Rotterdam to do PhD research in medical demography. Along the way she also acquired a Master’s in epidemiology. ‘I’ve always really enjoyed research, on all sorts of topics. For example, during my geography degree I examined developing countries and my final-year thesis for demography also covered research on children’s growth in India. The next topic I became involved in was mortality at an advanced age.’

Old-age mortality

‘The degree programme in demography in Groningen is the only one in the Netherlands, and our small group of students was a rare and interesting commodity. One day I got a phone call and was told that someone from Rotterdam wanted to come by and give me a job interview.’ In her PhD research, Janssen studied trends in old-age mortality in seven European countries. ‘It quickly turned out that the massive increase in smoking – first for men and then for women – had led to an important and long-term increase in mortality. This was followed – more recently – by a decline in mortality due to a decline in the percentage of smokers. The question then is whether you can do anything with this information in projecting future mortality and life expectancy.’

VIDI research: ‘Smoking, alcohol and obesity – ingredients for improved and robust mortality projections’

‘My research involves examining the effects of developments in smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and obesity on mortality, and consequently future life expectancy. When projecting life expectancy, frequently only the general historical mortality trends were examined, but it makes an enormous difference if you include or leave out the influence of these lifestyle factors – often resulting in a completely different development as compared to the general trend. If, for example, you leave out the fact that people in recent decades are smoking less and less in your projection, you end up with different and less accurate results. I am going to investigate on a European scale what influence certain “lifestyle epidemics” have on demographic projections. In Eastern Europe, for example, over 25% of mortality is caused by alcohol. Obesity can be regarded as the new smoking. In the United States, the effects of the obesity epidemic on mortality rates is already very clear.’

Cigarettes and deep fried snacks

With a laugh, Janssen recounts how someone recently apologized for lighting a cigarette near her –knowing that Janssen was studying the effects of smoking. ‘I always say that my study is at population level, studying the effect it has on the overall mortality rate in a country. It’s not up to me to tell people how bad cigarettes or deep fried snacks are for individuals, even though I’ve naturally gained the necessary epidemiological and medical knowledge along the way. I must confess though that I am always very curious to see my students’ reactions in lectures where I’m telling them about the effect of smoking on health.’

Master’s degree programme in Population Studies

The VIDI grant will give her more time for research, but Janssen is also very enthusiastic about her teaching duties. She is a dedicated coordinator of the Master’s degree programme in Population Studies. ‘It’s a brilliant programme, with a strong international and interdisciplinary focus. With about 10-15 students from all over the world and from many different disciplines, it’s a small-scale programme with lots of space for discussion. We focus on studying individual demographic behaviour (e.g. forming relationships, moving house, healthy ageing) in context, and on acquiring the analytical and academic skills needed to do this well. Everyone on the programme is really enthusiastic.’

International collaboration

She not only guides an international group of students and lecturers in the Master’s programme, her two VIDI PhD students come from abroad too. She also collaborates with national and international mortality experts, for example on the extent to which the age at which people die is shifting upwards. ‘In general, the assumption in mortality projections has been that the age distribution at death will remain fairly constant. We are investigating whether there are any shifts, for example upwards. This issue is currently not properly included, which has led to an underestimation of the number of people aged over a hundred. That is another important aspect of my research, where we can get input from the national experts in the countries involved.’

Engaging with public debate

Janssen’s research does not mean that she is constantly aware of her own health or that of others, ‘but when I see the vast numbers of unhealthy people around me, I do realize how relevant it is to do this research. I’m also delighted that Statistics Netherlands is using my idea to include the smoking epidemic in its predictions and not only to look just at general trends. They have adapted their methodology on this point. I’m also regularly invited by insurance companies and policymakers to come and tell my story. Then you realize that you are doing research that really engages with public debate.’

More information

About the Master in Population Studies

Last modified:22 October 2019 2.18 p.m.
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