The buffering hypothesis (BH) holds that social support (or psychological resources) limits or protects an individual from the harmful consequences of stressful events (Cohen and Wills 1985).
First discussed in a 1985 research article, a small number of papers in the last 30 years have examined the BH in older adults (Cohen and Wills 1985). Findings from research focusing on older adults include social support reducing the relationship of negative daily events on psychological distress and reducing the negative impact of acute stressors for older adults (Okun et al. 1990; Tyler and Hoyt 2000). Regarding specific potential stressors for older adults, research provides evidence that better social support decreases the likelihood of decreased physical health negatively predicting psychological well-being, and marital quality (a form of social support) (See “Marital Relationships”) mediates the relationship between disability and loneliness (Bhullar, Hine and Myall 2010; Warner and Kelly-Moore 2012). Furthermore, support from primary care services can reduce the negative impact resulting from functional limitations for older adults with multiple illnesses (Schüz et al. 2015).
For specific mental health conditions in older adults, increased (informational) social support can reduce depressive symptoms related to financial strain (Krause 1987). Interestingly further evidence that social support limits depressive symptoms come from two non-Western studies where emotional family support reduced depressive symptoms and social support reduced potential depressive symptoms after an acute stressor (Fukukawa et al. 2004; Watanabe et al. 2004).
Key Research Findings
While there is support for the BH, the theory also has several limitations. One limitation is a lack of studies from diverse populations. A search of the literature found only three studies examining BH in older adults in other cultures, and the one study examining multiple ethnic groups found ethnicity did impact the results, indicating culture does matter in the context of BH (Fukukawa et al. 2004; Schüz et al. 2015; Wu and Rudkin 2000). Furthermore, many studies within Western populations did not specify which of the five potential types of social support was provided, making it difficult to know what form of social support was effective (Cutrona and Suhr 1992). Clearly the type of social support must align with the stressor involved. For example, emotional social support might not have as effective as instrumental support in reducing the effects of stress from financial strain (Krause 1987).
Similarly, the type of stress involved is not always stated or differentiated in studies, and it is unclear whether the results refer to acute or chronic stress. The one study found comparing this difference in older adults did find that results depended on stress type (Chang 2015). Perhaps this is linked to the confusion regarding stress in the BH literature. While the BH definition specify stressful life events, much of the research seems to examine concepts which, while reducing psychological well-being, are not life events or are assumed to be stressful without evidence they are for the participant(s).
There is also evidence that BH simplifies the relationship between social support and psychological well-being. One study found a negative correlation between mental health challenges and social support (Litwin and Stoeckel 2013); another found that the psychological vulnerability of low social groups was not explained (Thoits 1982), and two other studies found that mistreatment and health issues were not moderated by social support (Fuhrer et al. 1999; Wong and Waite 2017). A neuropsychological study (Sherman et al. 2016) also provided evidence that stress and social support affect the brain independently of each other, indicating that any interaction found might be the result of a more complicated relationship.
Future Research Recommendations
While not specifically related to older adults, future research needs to explore these limitations in more detail in order to give a more comprehensive understanding of the limitations before branching out to populations not covered, such as those with diagnosed mental health conditions. More importantly, further research should examine the key concepts of the BH hypothesis as there appears to be an unacknowledged broadening of the hypothesis to concepts beyond stressful life events, without considering that the BH might not apply in these more general circumstances.
- Bhullar N, Hine DW, Myall BR (2010) Physical decline and psychological wellbeing in older adults: A longitudinal investigation of several potential buffering factors. In: Personality and individual differences: Current directions. Australian Academic Press, Bowen Hills, QLD, Australia, pp 237–247Google Scholar
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