Recent studies have linked Internet use to mental health problems and loneliness among young people — but new research shows that older people who utilize the Internet for social purposes are less likely to suffer from depression.
Researchers surveyed almost 8,000 men and women over age 50 and found that regular users of social networking sites were almost one-third less likely to be diagnosed with depression compared to non-users.
In general, the incidence of depression tends to be at its lowest around the age of 45, and highest among those over 80, according to research at the University of Illinois.
Prevalence increases from five percent at the age of 70 to 13 percent at 85. Loneliness, social isolation and lack of emotional support are the strongest factors.
In the new study — the biggest so far on the health effects of Internet use among older people — subjects reported how often they used the Internet and were then assessed for mental illness.
“Our findings suggest that Internet use has a positive effect on depression,” said sociologist Dr. Shelia Cotten, who led the research at the University of Alabama and other centers.
Increasing numbers of older people are going online, with the latest statistics from the Pew Research Centre, a U.S. think-tank, showing that one-third of people over 65 use social networking sites, compared with six percent three years ago.
The Internet seems to help older adults, many of whom have impaired mobility, keep in touch with friends and family, and broaden their social networks.
Another study at the University of California showed brain changes in men and women one week after using the Internet for the first time. Internet use stimulates nerve-cell activity and could boost brain functioning in older adults.
“The Internet provides an important tool for the rapidly increasing older population to lead independent lives, to keep in touch with friends and family and to make informed decisions on many issues from health to travel,” said Nichola Adams, whose research at the University of Surrey has looked at barriers to accessing the Internet among older people.
“The major reasons for not using the Internet were found to be lack of knowledge or access. Our own research has shown that once the initial practical issues have been overcome, there were still psychological barriers.”
“Social and work networks are important to uptake and older users need back-up to overcome apprehension at the beginning,” she added.
Source: University of Alabama