The health benefits of network growth: new evidence from a national survey of older adults

Benjamin Cornwell, Edward O Laumann
Social Science & Medicine 2015, 125: 94-106
Scholars who study how social networks affect older adults' health are often concerned with the prospect of declining social connectedness in late life. This paper shifts the focus to older adults' tendencies to cultivate new social ties. This process of network growth can improve access to social resources, boost self-esteem, reduce loneliness, and increase physical activity. We therefore examine the link between tie cultivation and health using new longitudinal data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), which recorded changes in older adults' confidant network rosters over a period of about five years. Most respondents (81.8%) added at least one new network member during the study period, and most (59.4%) cultivated multiple new confidant relationships. Longitudinal analyses suggest that the addition of new confidants is associated with improvements in functional, self-rated, and psychological health, net of baseline connectedness as well as any network losses that occurred during the same period. Network losses were associated with physical but not psychological well-being. These findings underscore the importance of distinguishing between concurrent processes that underlie social network change in later life, and highlight the need for additional research on the mechanisms by which network change may improve health.

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