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 users.
"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 two.
Depression affects millions of Americans older than 50, and suicide rates are highest among the elderly, according to the researchers.
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 the Internet.
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.
SOURCES: Shelia Cotten, Ph.D., professor, Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.; Lindsay Ryan, Ph.D., assistant research scientist, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; March 26, 2014, online, Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences