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Research: Face-to-face socializing more powerful than phone calls, emails in guarding against depression in older adults

Phone calls, digital communications less able to lower depression risk

In a slight knock on digital and telephone communications, a new study points to the unsurpassed mental health benefits of regular face-to-face social interactions among older adults. Study participants who regularly met in person with family and friends were less likely to report symptoms of depression, compared with participants who emailed or spoke on the phone. The gains people derived from face-to-face socializing endured even years later. The findings were published online today in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

“Research has long supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people’s mental health. But this is the first look at the role that the type of communication with loved ones and friends plays in safeguarding people from depression. We found that all forms of socialization aren’t equal. Phone calls and digital communication, with friends or family members, do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression,” says Alan Teo, M.D., M.S., lead author, assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, and researcher at the VA Portland Health Care System.

Teo and colleagues assessed more than 11,000 adults aged 50 and older in the United States who participated in the longitudinal Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan.

Researchers examined the frequency of in-person, telephone and written social contact, including email. Then they looked at the risk of depression symptoms two years later, adjusting for potential confounding factors including health status, how close people lived from family and preexisting depression.

The researchers found that having little face-to-face social contact nearly doubles your risk of having depression two years later. They also reported that having more or fewer phone conversations, or written or email contact, had no effect on depression.

Study participants who met up with family and friends at least three times a week had the lowest level of depressive symptoms two years later – 6.5 percent – than those who had less frequent contact. Individuals who met up just once every few months or less frequently had an 11.5 percent chance of depressive symptoms.

The study also detected significant differences between the types of individuals – family member versus friend – that participants should socialize with in order to have the most impact on their depression levels. The researchers found that among adults aged 50 to 69, frequent in-person contact with friends reduced subsequent depression. In contrast, adults 70 and older benefited from in-person contact with children and other family members.

Scientists who contributed to the study, “Does Mode of Contact with Different Types of Social Relationships Predict Depression Among Older Adults? Evidence from a Nationally Representative Survey,” include: Teo; HwaJung Choi, Ph.D.; Sarah B. Andrea, M.P.H.; Marcia Valenstein, M.D., M.S.; Jason T. Newsom, Ph.D.; Steven K. Dobscha, M.D., OHSU; Kara Zivin, Ph.D.

This study was supported, in part, by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Department of Veterans Affairs (IIR 10-176). Teo is supported by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Teo designed and began the study while a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar at University of Michigan and completed the study at the VA Portland Health Care System.

About OHSU

Oregon Health & Science University is a nationally prominent research university and Oregon’s only public academic health center. It serves patients throughout the region with a Level 1 trauma center and nationally recognized Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. OHSU operates dental, medical, nursing and pharmacy schools that rank high both in research funding and in meeting the university’s social mission. OHSU’s Knight Cancer Institute helped pioneer personalized medicine through a discovery that identified how to shut down cells that enable cancer to grow without harming healthy ones. OHSU Brain Institute scientists are nationally recognized for discoveries that have led to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and stroke. OHSU’s Casey Eye Institute is a global leader in ophthalmic imaging, and in clinical trials related to eye disease.

About VA Portland Health Care System

The VA Portland Health Care System (VAPORHCS) consists of 12 facilities and serves more than 90,000 Veterans in Oregon and Southwest Washington. VAPORHCS has more than 150 investigators and over 500 active protocols at any given time. VAPORHCS investigators research programs in basic science, clinical research, rehabilitation, health services, cooperative studies, epidemiology and outcomes research. VAPORHCS has approximately 100,000 square feet of wet and dry lab space at its research facility at the main medical center located in Portland, Oregon.

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