Even though older adults may have smaller social networks than younger adults, they have similar numbers of close friends and levels of well-being, a new study finds.
“Stereotypes of aging tend to paint older adults in many cultures as sad and lonely,” said study lead author Wandi Bruine de Bruin, of the University of Leeds in England.
“But the research shows that older adults’ smaller networks didn’t undermine social satisfaction and well-being. In fact, older adults tend to report better well-being than younger adults,” she added.
The researchers analyzed data from nearly 600 adults who took part in two U.S.-wide online surveys.
The participants provided information on the number of people they’d had regular contact with in the past six months. Contact included face-to-face, by phone or email or online.
Participants were also asked to rate their feelings of well-being over the past 30 days.
While older adults had smaller social networks than younger adults, the number of close friends was unrelated to age.
Younger adults had large social networks consisting of mostly “peripheral others,” such as coworkers, school or childhood acquaintances and people who provide a service.
This may be because online social media sites have led to large and impersonal social networks, according to the authors.
They found that only the number of close friends was associated with social satisfaction and well-being among adults of all ages, even after the number of family members, neighbors and peripheral others was taken into account.
The study was published online recently in the journal Psychology and Aging.
“Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have, and more to do with how you feel about your friends,” Bruine de Bruin said in a journal news release. “It’s often the younger adults who admit to having negative perceptions of their friends. Loneliness occurs in people of all ages. If you feel lonely, it may be more helpful to make a positive connection with a friend than to try and seek out new people to meet.”