- Mathematical Modelling of Social Systems, Institute for Research on Applied Mathematics and Systems, National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico City, Mexico
- Animal networks, Biological Networks, Contact networks, Emergence in complex networks, Multilayer, multiplex or multilevel Networks, Network intelligence, Network measures, Networks in arts and humanities, Self-organization in complex networks, Sensor networks, Social networks, Structural network properties
Social capital: an independent dimension of healthy ageing
How to age happily in a healthy networkRecommended by Gabriel Ramos-Fernández based on reviews by 2 anonymous reviewers
What is the relationship between social capital and healthy ageing? This is the simple yet ambitious question that Sueur et al. (2021) tackle in their review. The relationship between social capital (understood as the resources an individual has access to by virtue of belonging to a social group) and health has been the subject of discussion at least since the work of Émile Durkheim (1897) who emphasized the social roots of individual health problems, such as stress and its extreme form, reflected in suicidal tendencies. The discipline of medical sociology studies the social determinants of health, partly by focusing on those components of the social capital of individuals that directly influence their health (Cockerham 2017).
Using a comparative approach and focusing more on senescence than chronological ageing, Sueur et al. (2021) provide ample evidence that social capital has a positive relationship with fitness in many animal species, while stressing the plastic nature of senescence and therefore, pointing at the possibility that one way of improving health over an individual’s life span could be to improve its social capital. This dynamic view of the relationship between social capital and health, as a determinant of healthy ageing as a process, is one of the main conceptual contributions of this work. Another important contribution is the multi-level framework used by the authors in their review. Taking into account the cellular, endocrine, behavioral, individual and social network levels into the same conceptual scheme is a welcome attempt in view of the traditional reductionistic approaches taken in biomedicine. Another strength of the paper is the use of clearly explained boxes to tackle complicated and long-debated terms like social capital or display a full glossary with all the important terms introduced in the paper.
The authors point at the potential mechanisms by which social capital could affect senescence. Here, it is worth pointing out the contemporary context in which one mechanism identified by the authors, takes place in human communities. Since the work of Seyle (1970) it is well known that stress hormones produce a kind of premature ageing process due to a continued stress response. Clearly, socially determined stressful conditions such as racism in modern society, can lead to the activation of coping mechanisms that may be related to premature ageing (e.g. Geronimus et al. 2006).
A word of caution is particularly relevant: social capital can also have negative effects on health, the most obvious in the context of a pandemic like COVID-19’s being a higher risk of contagion from social exposure. It remains to be seen whether the way in which the human population has adapted as individuals and societies to this risk has necessarily implied a sharp, and probably costly, decrease in social capital.
Overall, this paper should be a good introduction to the intricate relationships between healthy ageing and social capital, hopefully inspiring further research using both animals and humans to understand the social component of ageing.
Cockerham WC (2017) Medical Sociology. Routledge, New York. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315618692
Durkheim É (1951) Suicide: a study in sociology. Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois.
Geronimus AT, Hicken M, Keene D, Bound J (2006) “Weathering” and Age Patterns of Allostatic Load Scores Among Blacks and Whites in the United States. American Journal of Public Health, 96, 826–833. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2004.060749
Selye H (1970) Stress and Aging. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 18, 669–680. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1532-5415.1970.tb02813.x
Sueur C, Quque M, Naud A, Bergouignan A, Criscuolo F (2021) Social capital: an independent dimension of healthy ageing. HAL, hal-03299528, ver. 3 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer Community in Network Science. https://hal.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-03299528