Social networks have been shown to influence well-being in many ways. For example, a large, diverse social network can provide access to social support and a wide range of opportunities and resources. At the same time, stressful social relationships can be a source of anxiety or conflict. Social networks high in social capital (that is, the economic and other resources made available through social ties) have been shown to confer health benefits to older adults, though the exact mechanisms through which this occurs are unclear. In a recent study, researchers used data from the National Social Life, Heath and Aging Project (NSHAP) to examine the relationship between social networks and well-being.
The study participants were those NSHAP participants who were at least 65 years of age. For the NSHAP, participants were administered in-depth interviews in their homes, as well as follow-up questionnaires. Using the NSHAP data, the researchers classified participants as belonging to one of five different network types (as described in a previous study, also reported in aging in action):
- Family, or having connections primarily within family networks
- Friends, having many ties outside of the family and few or none with family
- Diverse, or having ties to multiple individuals both inside and outside of their families
- Congregant, with most social ties being members of the same church
- Restricted, with minimal social connections
Of these, friends, diverse, and congregant types had a high degree of social capital, while family and restricted networks tended to be lower in social capital.
The researchers also assessed to what extent each participant experienced loneliness, which in previous research has been associated with a higher likelihood unhealthy or sedentary behavior among older adults. They hypothesized that loneliness might undermine the likelihood of engaging in healthy behavior.
To understand how social network types may influence the health-related behaviors of older adults, the researchers looked at how much individuals in each of the various network types engaged in three types of health related behaviors: alcohol abuse, physical activity, and the use of alternative therapies. The researchers examined whether participants in each type of social network were statistically more likely to engage in the three behaviors while controlling for a variety of demographic and health characteristics.
Within this sample, the friends network was the most common network type, and was associated with a lower likelihood of alcohol abuse, and a higher likelihood of physical activity and alternative medicine use. Participants in family networks had higher rates of alcohol abuse, and lower rates of physical activity and alternative medicine use, while those in restricted networks had higher rates of alcohol abuse. Loneliness did not have a statistically significant relationship with any of the three health-related behaviors.
The authors stated that, overall, individuals in social networks with lower social capital are at greater risk for alcohol abuse and physical inactivity. Future longitudinal research will help determine whether there is a causal relationship between social networks and health behavior, or whether one’s health behaviors have an influence on the shape of one’s social networks.