Newssocial sciences

Larger social networks are positively related with survival among women

Picture: 鹈鹂 夏 from Pixabay
Picture: 鹈鹂 夏 from Pixabay

Social resources, such as the social networks we build and socioeconomic positions we gain throughout life can influence the development of our health. Those factors can improve our health or, on the contrary, enhance the negative effects of experiencing chronic diseases and stress. In her doctoral thesis Dr. Liili Abuladze from Tallinn University School of Governance, Law and Society, researched the relationship between social resources, health and survival among middle-aged and older persons in various European countries and Estonia.

Interacting with people close to you, or your social network, provides an opportunity to give and receive emotional support. Emotional support can affect your health, including the development of physical or mental disabilities, and relieve stress experienced in relation to those disabilities. As such, that kind of support can improve a person’s ability to cope with everyday life as well as how long one lives.

Abuladze found that the social networks of middle-aged and older people in Estonia, especially those of people with activity limitations, are, on average, smaller and more family-oriented than those of their peers in many other European countries. Thus, the opportunities for exchanging emotional care are somewhat more limited in Estonia, partly due to long-term low life expectancy.

Conceptual framework of Liili Abuladze’s dissertation. Photo from “Social Resources and Health Outcomes of Middle-Aged and Older Populations”

At the same time, both the analysis of 14 European countries and Estonia separately found that having larger social networks was positively related to women living longer. However, larger support networks were not helpful for women with activity limitations in alleviating stress caused by health restrictions and exclusion from social life. At the European level, interacting with friends provided stress relief for people with activity limitations, and women also benefitted when the obligation to provide support to their partner was removed.

Although the role relations play in health and organisation of the social life has been considered very important, there appear to be few associations between social network characteristics and survival among middle-aged and older people in Estonia. The relevance of having a larger social network for health of middle-aged and older Estonian women can be interpreted in many ways – belonging to a larger social circle contributes to health directly via having access to information or minimal level support, thus extending the length of life.

On the other hand, receiving and giving emotional care differs by gender – middle-aged and older women are typically the main caregivers for the people around them, so the results may also reflect the connection with and opportunities of giving emotional support, not just receiving it. Social network characteristics did not alleviate the stressful experiences of people with activity limitations in Estonia, pointing to long-term deficits in the field of social integration of people with activity limitations.

Another novelty of Abuladze’s doctoral thesis in comparison with previous literature is the analysis of the accumulation of various life time resources, such as socioeconomic position, in relation to health outcomes in 26 European countries. The research confirmed earlier findings which state that older Europeans who have experienced accumulated socioeconomic disadvantage during childhood as well as adulthood also have worse later life health in terms of self-rated health, activity limitations and cognitive functioning. Despite Eastern Europeans having lower health indicators in most outcomes and a larger share of people in this region experiencing unfavourable life conditions, the relationship between the accumulation of disadvantages and health was not more marked for older people in Eastern Europe.

Liili Abuladze. Photo: Tallinn University

For her doctoral research, Abuladze analysed data collected during several waves of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The relationship between social network characteristics and survival, as well as the distribution of social networks among people with activity limitations, have not been studied in Estonia before. Moreover, the Estonian case provided the opportunity to analyse good quality data due to a large and representative sample and the possibility of cross-checking information on deaths from official records.  The research results help bring attention to social aspects of health in a situation where population ageing and the growing proportion of people with activity limitations have highlighted challenges for better organisation and financing of welfare and health care.

Liili Abuladze defended her PhD „Social Resources and Health Outcomes of Middle-Aged and Older Populations“ on the 4th of June.

This article was originally published on the webpage of Tallinn University.

If the journeys and achievements of women inspire you and their stories of strength captivate your spirit, discover more empowering tales on our webpage about how Estonia’s first female doctorates were educators and physicians!

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