Internet May Help Seniors Avoid Depression04/24/14
THURSDAY, April 24, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A basic
communication tool like email can help isolated older people combat
loneliness and depression, a new study suggests.
Surveys conducted between 2002 and 2008 found that far fewer
retirees who said they used the Internet for communication and
other purposes suffered from depression than non-Internet
"The key is that the Internet helps older adults stay in contact with their friends and family and to feel part of a larger community," said study lead author Shelia Cotten, a professor with the department of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University in East Lansing. "They're still actively engaged in some segment of our society, and they're not feeling like life has passed them by."
The research, recently published online in the
Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and
Social Sciences, doesn't prove that using the Internet to stay
in touch with faraway friends and family helps ease depression in
senior citizens. But it does suggest an association between the
Depression affects millions of Americans older than 50, and
suicide rates are highest among the elderly, according to the
For this study, they examined the results of four surveys given
to 3,075 respondents in the United States who were 50 and older and
not living in nursing homes.
The researchers adjusted the survey results for factors such as
race and marital status, ultimately focusing on the responses from
3,058 people who were surveyed more than once.
Over the six-year period, 13 to 15 percent of respondents
appeared to suffer from symptoms of depression. Only 9 percent of
those who said they used the Internet for email or other purposes
appeared to have symptoms of depression, compared to 16 percent of
those who didn't email or surf the Web.
The researchers linked Internet use to a 33 percent lower
probability of depression. And the reduction in depression was
greatest for people living alone, they said.
The study's design doesn't shed light on why depression was
averted. It's possible that people turned to the Internet because
their depression had already lifted on its own, Cotten said.
But it's more likely, Cotten believes, that the Internet is
contributing to the easing of depression symptoms, perhaps by
lowering loneliness and social isolation.
One social scientist said it's clear from research that older
adults are very motivated to keep social networks intact, and that
positive social relations are beneficial to both physical and
mental health. "This all suggests there is potential for health
benefits for those who are using the Internet to enhance their
social lives," added Lindsay Ryan, an assistant research scientist
with the Institute for Social Research at the University of
Michigan in Ann Arbor.
But what's the most effective way for older people to use the
Internet to reach out to others? The study doesn't shed light on
that question since the surveys didn't ask how participants used
It's not clear whether email -- or using online chat rooms or
bulletin boards -- made the most difference. Also, the backbones of
social media today such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were in
their infancy or nonexistent when the surveys were taken. MySpace
was around, but older people didn't use it, Cotten said.
However, Cotten was co-author of a study released in 2012 that
found older people who used Facebook and Twitter were one-third
less likely to develop depression.
In the big picture, Cotten said, the new study reveals the value
of the Internet to older adults. But there's a catch: They may need
help mastering this 21st-century tool, she said.
"You can't put a piece of technology in front of them and tell them to go use it like you can with a child," she said. "You have to start from the beginning, even showing them how to turn on a computer, and show them how technology can be useful in their lives."
Mental Health America has more on
depression and the elderly.
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