Social Circles Protect against Depression in Elderly Adults, Research Finds

Researchers in MSU's Department of Communication examine the layers of social connection and impacts on functioning in older adults

A new study published in Psychology and Aging shows that robust social networks can protect against depression in older adults, with MSU researchers taking a look at the layers that exist in older adults’ social circles.

The study, “Multilayered Social Dynamics and Depression among Older Adults: A 10-year cross-lagged analysis,” was led by Reed Reynolds, Ph.D., and conducted in collaboration with Jingbo Meng, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Dorrance Hall, Ph.D., in MSU’s Department of Communication.

“We have known that social connection is incredibly important for people of advanced age, and also that older people often suffer from shrinking networks and difficulty building new relationships,” said Reynolds. “Our study helps show how involvement in the community—whether through clubs, charities, or churches—is one of the best ways for older people to build new relationships and grow their social network. In turn, this more robust network seems to protect against future depression.”

Exploring the Relationship Between Isolation and Depression

Reynolds said the issue of whether isolation in older adults leads to depression has been a longstanding question.

“Many have suspected it works both ways; isolation leads to depression, but also depression increases isolation,” he said. “Our study looked at the process unfolding over ten years, and we found more evidence that our social connections influence depression than vise versa. So, isolation is a contributing factor for depression.”

The study explored three circles of social interaction in elderly adults: the intimate layer, the intermediate layer, and the community layer. The intimate layer refers to the connection with spouses or romantic partners. The intermediate layer refers to interpersonal connections where people regularly interact, such as friends, family and co-workers. Finally, the community layer refers to interpersonal interaction fostered by communities and organizations, such as volunteer work or taking classes at a community center.

While elderly adults may be able to engage in many layers of human connection, the quality of their relationships within each layer also makes a difference.

“All relationships are different, and the kinds of support we get depends on the quality of the relationship,” said Reynolds. “Support can be tangible in the form of assistance when a personal crisis emerges; it can also be emotional, and feeling cared for is also critical. Outer layer (peripheral, weak-tie) connections see less investment and sacrifice, but are important for building more close connections. They also contribute to a sense of belonging to a community.”

Finding Comfort in Community

Adults who do not have close, intimate relationships often make up for this lack of human connection in other areas of their social circles, or social layers.

“Depending on a person’s social network, we do see compensation,” said Reynolds. “People without spouses or romantic partners tend to build larger interpersonal networks. Conversely, people with a partner may have less time and less need for a large friend network.”

While this may not be surprising, MSU researchers were struck by some of the findings of the study.

“The biggest surprise was the effect of having a partner on future depression. This issue has been studied previously and typically, among middle-aged adults, having a partner or spouse is good for mental health. The benefits of partnership may come with a deferred cost, however,” said Reynolds.

“As we age and face increased risk of mortality, our partner does the same. Our research demonstrates the high risk of partner death, and the substantial increase in depression that results for the elderly. Unfortunately, the impact of partner loss is exacerbated by old age,” he said. “In addition to the experience of grief, older people may perceive less opportunity to make new life partners, they may have less functional ability to do so, and, it may be impossible to replace a relationship that involved a lifetime of shared experiences.”

Other research projects have shown that isolation may be associated with a shorter lifespan, raising the stakes for elderly adults who are isolated. However, rather than examining issues of mortality, this study focused on mental health.

Increased Isolation in the Pandemic

“In the world of adulthood, older adults’ relationships are unique,” said Dorrance Hall. “These adults can feel really isolated. This idea of loneliness—where you are in your network and how connected you are—plays an important role in your well-being. We really wanted to dig into this idea.”

The research carries special significance in the novel coronavirus pandemic, as many elderly adults are at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 or losing a partner to the disease. Many elderly adults are also experiencing more isolation due to public health risk prevention measures, such as social distancing and quarantine.

“It’s vital to have that community connection, which I think is especially relevant today in COVID times,” said Dorrance Hall. “That’s where we are able to go out and volunteer, or go to the community center and take a yoga class, or whatever we do to feel connected to our larger community. It’s not good to not have that available.”

After public life came to a halt in 2020, many individuals, families and groups were able to continue meeting in a digital space, using internet-based video services and social media apps.

“A lot of interactions and group meetings are happening virtually, so it may be easier for younger adults, but for older adults they may not be as technology savvy,” said Jingbo. “To what extent technology can fill those gaps is also important.”

This study is one of two papers that the research team published in 2020 exploring this topic. Going forward, MSU researchers hope to inspire more work addressing social isolation and depression among the elderly, which is a growing population in the U.S.

“There is an urgent need to assist those suffering from depression, and especially the elderly in the wake of partner loss,” said Reynolds. “As researchers continue to learn more, one thing I can stress is the importance of building relationships across the lifespan; this includes engagement in communal activities as well as maintaining close relationships. Eventually, we will need them more than we realize.”

By Melissa Priebe

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