The association between social network relationships and depressive symptoms among older Americans: what matters most?

Howard Litwin
International Psychogeriatrics 2011, 23 (6): 930-40

BACKGROUND: Although social network relationships are linked to mental health in late life, it is still unclear whether it is the structure of social networks or their perceived quality that matters.

METHODS: The current study regressed a dichotomous 8-item version of the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CESD-8) score on measures of social network relationships among Americans, aged 65-85 years, from the first wave of the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project. The network indicators included a structural variable - social network type - and a series of relationship quality indicators: perceived positive and negative ties with family, friends and spouse/ partner. Multivariate logistic regression analyses controlled for age, gender, education, income, race/ethnicity, religious affiliation, functional health and physical health.

RESULTS: The perceived social network quality variables were unrelated to the presence of a high level of depressive symptoms, but social network type maintained an association with this mental health outcome even after controlling for confounders. Respondents embedded in resourceful social network types in terms of social capital--"diverse," "friend" and "congregant" networks--reported less presence of depressive symptoms, to varying degrees.

CONCLUSIONS: The results show that the structure of the network seems to matter more than the perceived quality of the ties as an indicator of depressive symptoms. Moreover, the composite network type variable stands out in capturing the differences in mental state. The construct of network type should be incorporated in mental health screening among older people who reside in the community. One's social network type can be an important initial indicator that one is at risk.

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