Several theories seek to explain how social connections and cognitive function are interconnected in older age. These include that social interaction protects against cognitive decline, that cognitive decline leads to shedding of social connections and that cognitive decline leads to increased instrumental support. We investigated how patterns of social contact, social support and cognitive health in rural South Africa fit with these three theories.
We used data from the baseline of "Health and Aging in Africa: a Longitudinal Study of an INDEPTH community in South Africa" (HAALSI), a population-based study of 5059 individuals aged ≥ 40 years. We evaluated how a range of social connectedness measures varied by respondents' cognitive function.
We found that respondents with lower cognitive function had smaller, denser social networks that were more local and more kin-based than their peers. Lower cognitive function was associated with receipt of less social support generally, but this difference was stronger for emotional and informational support than for financial and physical support. Impairment was associated with greater differences among those aged 40-59 and those with any (versus no) educational attainment.
The patterns we found suggest that cognitively impaired older adults in this setting rely on their core social networks for support, and that theories relating to social connectedness and cognitive function developed in higher-income and highereducation settings may also apply in lower-resource settings elsewhere in the world.