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The impact of social networks on the relationship between functional impairment and depressive symptoms in older adults

  • Kimberly J. Stoeckel (a1) and Howard Litwin (a1)

To examine the role of meaningful relationship characteristics, defined here as social network type, in relation to the association between functional impairment and depressive symptoms.


The sample included respondents aged 65 years and older (n = 26,401) from the fourth wave of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). Respondents were classified into one of seven relationship network types (Distal Children (living at a distance), Proximal Family (living nearby), Spouse, Other Family, Friend, Other, and No Network) according to the predominant characteristics of their most meaningful relationships. A two-stage regression analysis was performed in which the number of depressive symptoms was first regressed on the extent of functional impairment and network type, controlling for sociodemographic characteristics, cognition, health, and country. In the second stage, variables representing the interactions between functional impairment and network type were considered.


The compositional characteristics of respondents’ relationships in later life, as defined by social network type, were associated with depressive symptoms. In particular, when experiencing functional impairment, those without any meaningful relationships were found to have more depressive symptoms when compared to all other network types. The findings underscore the importance of meaningful relationships for the mental health of older adults experiencing functional impairment as well as the risk of experiencing depression among those who maintain no personal social network.


The study shows that differing constellations of meaningful relationships in later life yield different associations with mental health, especially when taking functional limitations into account.

Corresponding author
Correspondence should be addressed to: Howard Litwin, Israel Gerontological Data Center, Paul Baerwald School of Social Work The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus 91905, Jerusalem, Israel. Phone: (972) 2 588 0303, Fax: (972) 2 588 0306. Email:
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International Psychogeriatrics
  • ISSN: 1041-6102
  • EISSN: 1741-203X
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