Social Capital and Health Across the Life Cycle

December 7, 2020

Health, Social Policy Sociology

Eric Nauenberg explores the changing dynamics of social capital and health across the lifecycle.

One of the major questions not asked with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic regards the impact of the pandemic on health owing to a potential sudden shock to an individual’s stock of social capital in terms of one’s network of friends and family. It is likely with social distancing and other isolation measures in place to contain the pandemic that many people have experienced a sudden depletion in this stock – an inventory which may or may not be fully recoverable in the future.

Just as the structure of the employment landscape may be permanently altered – so too may social interactions be permanently altered in ways that may not perfectly substitute for existing social structures established over time. The life-cycle model of general consumption – developed by Modigliani and Brumberg (1954, 1980) positing an inverted U-shaped pattern as one ages – is likely applicable to social capital as well in normal times, but these times are anything but normal and the patterns may have been permanently altered in some manner that is yet to be seen. 

In Chapter 5 of The Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health dealing with social capital and health over the life cycle, I bring up the issue of virtual “social media” relationships beginning to dominate over in-person relationships and whether they serve as substitutes for the latter (Nauenberg, 2018). This pandemic has potentially further increased this dominance having ramifications for the level of support a person experiences in his/her daily life. My supposition is that the bonds that tie virtual relationships are likely to be much weaker than those that bond in-person relationships; therefore, the level of support that people may be experiencing may be substantially decreased during the pandemic and may never bounce back to baseline.

What is curious presently is that the virtual world of social relationships is now suddenly become the predominant form of relating in many areas of the working world through Zoom® and Microsoft Teams® and whatever support structures that may be present in the workforce may also emulate the patterns that are being experienced amongst one’s social circle. The same goes for school-age children particularly if on-line learning continues far into the current school year. There is a further curious trend in this pandemic that warrants some mention. It has been found that men are more at risk for worse outcomes than females across the age distribution. While both genders have the same prevalence, men have higher mortality (Jin, Bai, and He et al., 2020). In the chapter, I mention the worldwide phenomenon for men under the age of 65 to increasingly live alone. While more women live alone over the age of 65, this gap too has narrowed in recent years (United Nations Statistics Division, 2017). While there may be clinical reasons for this difference across genders in terms of differences in physical health and prevalence of pre-existing conditions, it is entirely plausible that lower levels of social capital amongst men than amongst women may potentially play a role as well. I will await the published literature to “weigh-in” on this issue.

Eric Nauenberg, Ph.D. is a Member of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, CA.

Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health edited by Sherman Folland and Eric Nauenberg is out now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline

Also on ElgarBlog:

Why Trust is Good for your Health by Martin Ljunge. Read Martin Ljunge’s chapter Trust promotes health: addressing reverse causality by studying children of immigrants 

The Importance of being Social –Sherman Folland investigates the influential role social capital plays in mental health and physical wellbeing.

Religious Capital, Social Capital and Health Ephraim Shapiro and Chen Sharony explore the link between religion and health

Does Health Affect Social Capital Hope Corman, Kelly Noonan, and Nancy E. Reichman examine the relationship between health and social capital.

Social Capital in Epidemiology, Martin Lindströ mexplores the link between religion, social capital and health.

Social Capital and Aging Brain Health Nicole Anderson explores the relationship between social capital and the health of the brain as it ages.

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