Objectives: Social support and social networks have been shown to exert significant effects on health and functioning among elderly persons. Although theorists have speculated that the strength of these effects may differ as a function of sociodemographic characteristics and prior health status, few studies have directly tested the moderating effects of these variables.
Methods: Longitudinal data from the MacArthur Study of Successful Aging were used to examine the effects of structural and functional social support on changes in physical functioning over a 7-year period, measured by the Nagi scale, in a sample of initially high-functioning men and women aged 70 to 79 years. Multiple regression analyses were used to test the main effects of social support and social network variables, as well as their interactions with gender, income, and baseline physical performance.
Results: After controlling for potential confounding effects, respondents with more social ties showed less functional decline. The beneficial effects of social ties were stronger for respondents who were male or had lower levels of baseline physical performance.
Discussion: The effects of social support and social networks may vary according to the individual's gender and baseline physical capabilities. Studies of functional decline among elderly persons should not ignore this population variation in the effects of social networks.