Network recall among older adults with cognitive impairments: A view from two worlds

Adam Roth, Siyun Peng, Evan Finley, Brea Perry


Network recall presents a major issue for longitudinal research on egocentric networks. Although it is widely acknowledged that social networks influence health and illness, it is important to determine exactly what we are getting when we elicit egocentric network data. As early as the 1970s, methodologists questioned how well people recall specific social interactions. Early work in this field led researchers to conclude that self-reported data are poor proxies for actual patterns of social interactions. These concerns are heighten when studying an older population that is vulnerable to cognitive decline. It is particularly important to address the issue of network recall among older adults because certain types of egocentric networks may protect them from developing cognitive impairments over time. However, if older adults have skewed views of their egocentric networks the causal pathways between networks and cognition become difficult to parse. In the present study, we examine the degree to which older adults’ self-reported egocentric networks are corroborated by a study partner. Using data from the Social Network and Alzheimer’s Disease (SNAD) Study, we explore similarities and discrepancies between focal participant and study partner recall across network-level variables (e.g., density) and alter-level variables (e.g., relationship type). SNAD is an on-going panel study of older adults with varying levels of clinical diagnoses (cognitively normal, mild cognitive impairment, early stage dementia). We leverage these data to explore how cognitive impairment influences older adults’ views of their own egocentric networks. Consistent with previous studies, we find that the average individual is more likely to omit weaker, peripheral ties from their self-reported networks than stronger, central ties. Despite the moderate levels of focal-partner corroboration across our sample, we find minimal evidence of perceptual differences across diagnostic groups. We offer two broad conclusions. First, self-reported network data, though imperfect, offer a reasonable account of the core people in one’s life. Second, our findings assuage concerns that cognitively impaired older adults have skewed perceptions of their egocentric networks.

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