What kinds of social networks protect older adults’ health during a pandemic? The tradeoff between preventing infection and promoting mental health

Elsevier, Social Networks, Volume 70, July 2022
Coleman M.E., Manchella M.K., Roth A.R., Peng S., Perry B.L.

When the coronavirus emerged in early 2020, older adults were at heightened risk of contracting the virus, and of suffering mental health consequences from the pandemic and from the precautions designed to mitigate it. In this paper, we examine how social networks prior to the pandemic helped to shape health beliefs, behaviors, and outcomes among older adults during its onset, focusing on (1) perceived risk of COVID-19, (2) preventative health behaviors, and (3) mental health, including loneliness, perceived stress, depression, and anxiety. Drawing on the longitudinal Social Networks in Alzheimer Disease study, we find that networks high in bridging social capital predict greater perceived risk and more precautions taken, but worse mental health. In contrast, networks high in bonding social capital predict less perceived risk and fewer precautions taken, but better mental health. We discuss this apparent tradeoff between physical and mental health.