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How technology can help and hurt the mental health of aging Americans
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A new study explores the mental health risk of using technological advancements to replace more personable social interaction. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Eighteen months ago, Cathy Wiser and her husband, Dale, packed up their home in central Illinois and headed south, relocating closer to family members and friends.

"Before, if the family was going to get together, I'd have to pack my overnight bags and make plans to (drive)," said Wiser, 56. "Now, gatherings start with an impromptu, 'Are you free for lunch today?'"

The 100-mile move breathed life into her social calendar. And new research shows it likely boosted her mental health, as well.

Retired adults who see friends or family members in-person only once every few months have an 11.5 percent chance of developing symptoms of depression within two years, according to a new study, published this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The probability decreases to 7.3 percent for older people, like Wiser, who see loved ones once or twice per week, the study reported.

The researchers behind the new report worry that face-to-face interactions are becoming less common in a digital age, as technologies like Skype and social media change even older Americans' social habits. However, other elder care advocates balk at this anxiety, citing many ways technological advancements have improved the lives of retired men and women by increasing opportunities to make social connections.

"If you're looking to increase face-to-face interactions, you can join a church or synagogue, visit a social club or volunteer with a local organization," and the details about these types of events are available online, said Laurie Orlov, principal analyst at Aging in Place Technology Watch.

Boost or bust?

Technological advancements like smartphones are usually discussed in terms of how they affect younger generations. For example, Pew Research Center released a report earlier this month detailing how technology influences teenagers' romantic relationships.

It's less common for researchers to consider how technology alters the social habits of older Americans, even though technological advancements can hold serious mental health consequences, said Alan Teo, lead author of the new study and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University.

"Older folks and younger folks all use Facebook, social media and texting," but few studies have explored whether these technologies hold the same social benefits as face-to-face interactions, he said.

In the new research, Teo and his team analyzed more than 11,000 responses to the Health and Retirement Survey, which is administered by the University of Michigan to a representative sample of Americans aged 50 and older once every two years. Their study used submissions collected between 2004 and 2010, and the most advanced technology included was email, which helped researchers begin to investigate the impact of digital forms of communication.

The frequency of phone calls had no impact on older Americans' risk of depression, the study reported. Email frequency, particularly the shift from sending and receiving messages every few months to communicating online multiple times per month, did affect the appearance of depressive symptoms, but not as significantly as in-person meetings.

The bottom line was that retired people need to prioritize face-to-face gatherings if they're worried about their mental well-being, Teo said.

Orlov acknowledged that in-person gatherings should be preferred to other types of interactions, but said some people's health or location clearly prevents them from maintaining an active social life. In these situations, technology shouldn't be blamed for relative isolation, but instead, viewed as a helpful tool to maintain connections with inaccessible friends and loved ones, she noted.

"These are additive technologies. They enhance the quality of life" for older Americans living far away from loved ones or confined, due to health concerns, to an assisted-living facility or nursing home, she said.

Hanging out, for your health

Wiser, a retired elementary school reading aide and technology coordinator, moved closer to her loved ones because she wasn't satisfied with a technology-centered social life.

However, like Orlov, she now credits her phone and computer with making more in-person gatherings possible, because they've helped her reconnect with old friends.

"Technology provides a big boost to my social life," she said. "I started a Facebook group for my high school class. We stay in touch to share good news, and pass along condolences, as well."

Wiser said technology also helps her stay close to her son and daughter-in-law in California, because she can text them updates or share links to funny articles she finds online.

Although Teo applauds people like Wiser who use technology to supplement their social life, he worries her focus on finding opportunities to meet with loved ones face-to-face is becoming more rare. Retired people need to be as proactive about scheduling in-person meet-ups as they are about taking medicine or eating healthy foods, he noted.

"The general public gets it that you need to get out and get regular exercise. They get it that a lot of people take a multivitamin. But we surprisingly don't appreciate the social influences affecting our mental health or that getting out and having some face-to-face time and conversation actually translates into real health benefits like the significant reduction of depression risk," he said.

Teo hopes his research will inspire retired men and women to schedule more in-person interactions with friends and family members. The study can also help younger people recognize the benefits of being generous with their time, he noted.

"My father is in his seventies and we spend a lot of time texting and on the phone. It's a challenge to get together," Teo said. "But when I make decisions about whether to fly home to see him at Thanksgiving, for example, I've been thinking in terms of this research and how I need to make an effort to spend as much face-to-face time with him as I can."