Commentary

Social Media Linked To Better Health In Seniors

Social media use is correlated with better physical and mental health in older adults, including lower levels of chronic disease and depression, according to a new study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking. Furthermore, the study, titled “The Benefits of Social Technology Use Among Older Adults,” suggests there is a causal connection between social media and improved health, as the online connections help reduce feelings of loneliness, a contributing factor for many age-related maladies.

The study followed 591 seniors with an average age of 68 who participated in the national Health and Retirement Study, comparing one group who used a variety of digital communications technology -- including social media Web sites, email, online video and phone calls, and online chat -- with a control group who did not. Over the course of the study period, the former group showed lower rates of chronic disease including diabetes and hypertension, as well as fewer symptoms of mental health issues including depression. 

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Crucially, the former group also reported fewer feelings of loneliness, indicating that the differences are not due to simple correlation (for example, the possibility that seniors who already enjoy good mental and physical health are more likely to be open to using new technologies). Rather, social media use appears to lead to better overall health by fostering social connections, which other studies have shown help to ward off some of the mental and physical affects of aging.

Among the study group participants, 95% of seniors said they liked social media technology and 72% said they are open to learning about more new technologies for communication. 

This is not the first study to find that social media may boost seniors’ physical and mental well being. In 2014 a study by researchers at the University of Exeter in the UK followed 76 participants from 31 residential and nursing homes around Britain, ages 65-95, who were judged to be at risk of serious mental and physical decline associated with aging. Half of the seniors were randomly assigned to a group which received training in social media using touchscreen computers, including “liking” photos posted by friends and family, sending and receiving emails, and communicating with relatives overseas using video chat; the control group did not.

After receiving social media training, the study group showed an improvement in cognition as well as increased confidence in their own ability to handle day-to-day tasks -- not to mention a more positive attitude about computers. The seniors in the study group also displayed a stronger sense of personal identity and reported feeling less lonely -- lessening the risk of depression, a major factor in mental and physical decline associated with aging.

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