Social Relationships in Later Life: The Role of Childhood Circumstances

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 10:00 AM
Room: Booth 40
Distributed Paper
Sarah GIBNEY , Quinn Business School, University College Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
Mark MCGOVERN, PHD , Harvard University, Boston, MA
There is an established body of research in social epidemiology which links both health and emotional wellbeing to social relationships across the life course and in later life. However, there is surprisingly little evidence on how differences in the nature and quality of these social relationships arise. It is not known, for example, whether existing social gradients in the prevalence of social engagement, social network size or quality mirror gradients in childhood socio-economic status (SES) and/or health. 

This paper investigates the long-term impact of childhood conditions on social relationships. We use data from SHARE (the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe), a collection of nationally representative surveys of the over 50s in 13 European countries. Combining novel objective and subjective measures of current social networks with retrospective life history data on childhood health, cognition, SES and household environment we examine the long-term impact of childhood conditions on social network size, social network satisfaction and emotional closeness in older age.

Using regression techniques, we show that there is a strong but differential association between each aspect of childhood circumstance on social relationships in later life. Therefore we critique the index approach to measuring childhood conditions which gives equal weight to SES, health and social environment over time. We find that emotional closeness mediates the relationship between childhood circumstance and social network satisfaction.