European Journal of Ageing

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 299–309 | Cite as

Social networks and mental health among older Europeans: are there age effects?

  • Howard Litwin
  • Kimberly J. Stoeckel
  • Ella Schwartz
Original Investigation


This study examined different components of personal social networks—structure, interaction, and quality—and the extent to which each is related to mental health among a 65+ sample (n = 26,784) taken from the fourth wave of the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe. The first aim of the study was to determine which network components had the strongest associations with the number of depressive symptoms, measured on the EURO-D scale. Secondly, the study considered if and how age impacted the associations between social network and depression, using interaction terms that paired age category (age 65–79; age 80+) with the score on each network component. Hierarchical OLS regressions revealed that social network quality and network structure were both negatively related to the number of depressive symptoms. The association between network size (structure) and depression was even greater among those 80+. Age differences were also found for network interaction. More frequent contact with the network was related to a greater extent of depressive symptoms, but only among respondents aged 80 and older. Closer geographic proximity was related to having fewer depressive symptoms, but only among respondents aged 65–79. The findings imply that the association between meaningful personal relationships and depression in late life is nuanced by both network characteristics and by age.


SHARE Depression Network size Network satisfaction Proximity 



This paper uses data from SHARE wave 4 release 1.1.1, as of March 28, 2013 (doi: 10.6103/SHARE.w4.111). The SHARE data collection has been primarily funded by the European Commission through the 5th Framework Programme (project QLK6-CT-2001-00360 in the thematic programme Quality of Life), through the 6th Framework Programme (projects SHARE-I3, RII-CT-2006-062193, COMPARE, CIT5-CT-2005-028857, and SHARELIFE, CIT4-CT-2006-028812), and through the 7th Framework Programme (SHARE-PREP, No. 211909, SHARE-LEAP, No. 227822 and SHARE M4, No. 261982). Additional funding from the U.S. National Institute on Aging (U01 AG09740-13S2, P01 AG005842, P01 AG08291, P30 AG12815, R21 AG025169, Y1-AG-4553-01, IAG BSR06-11 and OGHA 04-064) and the German Ministry of Education and Research as well as from various national sources is gratefully acknowledged (see for a full list of funding institutions).


  1. Antonucci TC et al (2002) Differences between men and women in social, relations, resource deficits, and depressive symptomatology during later life in four nations. J Soc Issues 58:767–783. doi: 10.1111/1540-4560.00289 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ayalon L, Heinik J, Litwin H (2010) Population group differences in cognitive functioning in a national sample of Israelis 50 years and older. Res Aging 32:304–322. doi: 10.1177/0164027509356875 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Barger SD, Messerli-Burgy N, Barth J (2014) Social relationship correlates of major depressive disorder and depressive symptoms in Switzerland: nationally representative cross sectional study. BMC Public Health 14:273. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-14-273 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beekman ATF et al (1998) Anxiety disorders in later life: a report from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 13:717–726. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1099-1166(1998100)13:10<717:aid-gps857>;2-m CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Berg AI, Hassing LB, McClearn GE, Johansson B (2006) What matters for life satisfaction in the oldest-old? Aging Ment Health 10:257–264. doi: 10.1080/13607860500409435 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burt RS, Guilarte MG (1986) A note on scaling the General Social Survey network item response categories. Soc Netw 8:387–396. doi: 10.1016/0378-8733(86)90004-3 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Connidis IA (2010) Family ties and aging, 2nd edn. Pine Forge Press (SAGE Publications), Thousand OaksGoogle Scholar
  8. Cooper C et al (2011) Happiness across age groups: results from the 2007 National Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 26:608–614. doi: 10.1002/gps.2570 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cornwell B, Laumann EO (2015) The health benefits of network growth: new evidence from a national survey of older adults. Soc Sci Med 125:94–106CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cornwell EY, Waite LJ (2009) Measuring social isolation among older adults using multiple indicators from the NSHAP Study. J Gerontol B 64:I38–I46. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbp037 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cornwell B, Schumm LP, Laumann EO, Graber J (2009) Social networks in the NSHAP study: rationale, measurement, and preliminary findings. J Gerontol B 64:I47–I55. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbp042 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Figueiras A, Domenech-Massons JM, Cadarso C (1998) Regression models: calculating the confidence interval of effects in the presence of interactions. Stat Med 17:2099–2105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fingerman KL (2004) The consequential stranger: Peripheral relationships across the life span. In: Lang FR, Fingerman KL (eds) Growing together: personal relationships across the life span. Cambridge University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  14. Fiori KL, Jager J (2012) The impact of social support networks on mental and physical health in the transition to older adulthood: a longitudinal, pattern-centered approach. Int J Behav Dev 36:117–129. doi: 10.1177/0165025411424089 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Fiori KL, Windsor TD, Pearson EL, Crisp DA (2013) Can positive social exchanges buffer the detrimental effects of negative social exchanges? Age and gender differences. Gerontology 59:40–52. doi: 10.1159/000339747 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Fuller-Iglesias H, Sellars B, Antonucci TC (2008) Resilience in old age: social relations as a protective factor. Res Hum Dev 5:181–193. doi: 10.1080/15427600802274043 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Houtjes W, van Meijel B, van de Ven PM, Deeg D, van Tilburg T, Beekman A (2014) The impact of an unfavorable depression course on network size and loneliness in older people: a longitudinal study in the community. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 29:1010–1017CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kawachi I, Berkman LF (2001) Social ties and mental health. J Urban Health 78:458–467. doi: 10.1093/jurban/78.3.458 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Li LW, Liang J (2007) Social exchanges and subjective well-being among older Chinese: does age make a difference? Psychol Aging 22:386–391. doi: 10.1037/0882-7974.22.2.386 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Litwin H (ed) (1996) The social networks of older people: a cross-national analysis. Praeger Publishers, WestportGoogle Scholar
  21. Litwin H (2007) What really matters in the social network-mortality association? A multivariate examination among older Jewish-Israelis. Eur J Ageing 4:71–82. doi: 10.1007/s10433-007-0048-2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Litwin H (2010) Social networks and well-being: a comparison of older people in Mediterranean and non-Mediterranean countries. J Gerontol B 65:599–608. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbp104 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Litwin H (2011) The association between social network relationships and depressive symptoms among older Americans: what matters most? Int Psychogeriatr 23:930–940. doi: 10.1017/s1041610211000251 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Litwin H, Shiovitz-Ezra S (2011) The association of background and network type among Older Americans: is “who you are” related to “who you are with”? Res Aging 33:735–759. doi: 10.1177/0164027511409441 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Litwin H, Stoeckel KJ (2013) Social networks and subjective wellbeing among older Europeans: does age make a difference? Ageing Soc 33:1263–1281. doi: 10.1017/s0144686x12000645 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Litwin H, Stoeckel KJ, Roll A, Shiovitz-Ezra S, Kotte M (2013) Social network measurement in SHARE wave 4. In: Malter F, Börsch-Supan A (eds) SHARE wave 4: innovations and methodology. MEA, Max-Planck-Institute for Social Law and Social Policy, Munich, pp 18–37Google Scholar
  27. Litwin H, Stoeckel KJ, Roll A (2014) Relationship status and depressive symptoms among older co-resident caregivers. Aging Ment Health 18:225–231. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2013.837148 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Menec VH, Chipperfield JG (1997) The interactive effect of perceived control and functional status on health and mortality among young–old and old–old adults. J Gerontol B 52:P118–P126CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Park S, Smith J, Dunkle RE (2014) Social network types and well-being among South Korean older adults. Aging Ment Health 18:72–80. doi: 10.1080/13607863.2013.801064 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Pescosolido BA (2011) Social connectedness in health, morbidity and mortality, and health care: the contributions, limits and further potential of Health and Retirement Study. Forum Health Econ Policy 14(3):1–16CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Phongsavan P et al (2013) Age, gender, social contacts, and psychological distress: findings from the 45 and up study. J Aging Health 25:921–943. doi: 10.1177/0898264313497510 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Prince MJ et al (1999) Development of the EURO-D scale: a European Union initiative to compare symptoms of depression in 14 European countries. Br J Psychiatry 174:330–338. doi: 10.1192/bjp.174.4.330 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Sonnenberg CM, Deeg DJH, van Tilburg TG, Vink D, Stek ML, Beekman ATF (2013) Gender differences in the relation between depression and social support in later life. Int Psychogeriatr 25:61–70. doi: 10.1017/s1041610212001202 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Stevens NL, van Tilburg TG (2011) Cohort differences in having and retaining friends in personal networks in later life. J Soc Pers Relat 28:24–43. doi: 10.1177/0265407510386191 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Tabachnick BG, Fidell LS (2013) Using multivariate statistics. Harper Collins, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  36. Thompson A, Fan M-Y, Unuetzer J, Katon W (2008) One extra month of depression: the effects of caregiving on depression outcomes in the IMPACT trial. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry 23:511–516. doi: 10.1002/gps.1929 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. van Tilburg TG (1994) Social network size and support. In: Deeg DJH, Westendorp-de Seriere M (eds) Autonomy and well-being in the aging population: report from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam 1992–1993. VU Uitgeverij, Amsterdam, pp 79–88Google Scholar
  38. van Tilburg T (1998) Losing and gaining in old age: changes in personal network size and social support in a four-year longitudinal study. J Gerontol B 53:S313–S323CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Howard Litwin
    • 1
    • 2
  • Kimberly J. Stoeckel
    • 1
  • Ella Schwartz
    • 1
  1. 1.Israel Gerontological Data CenterThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael
  2. 2.Paul Baerwald School of Social WorkThe Hebrew University of JerusalemJerusalemIsrael

Personalised recommendations