"The largest impacts on depression were actually for
those people who lived alone, so it's really suggesting that it's
about connecting with others, eliminating isolation and loneliness,"
lead study author Shelia Cotten said.
Depression affects nearly eight percent of Americans over the age of
50, or between 5 million and 10 million people, say the authors in The
Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
Older adults are much more likely to experience depression,
loneliness and social isolation than younger people, Cotten told
A researcher in telecommunication, information studies and media at
Michigan State University in East Lansing, she wanted to see if
getting older people online might lower that risk.
Cotten and her colleagues analyzed responses gathered over six years
by the U.S. Health and Retirement Survey, a large population study
that focuses on the transitions Americans go through as they retire.
The data covered 3,075 retired men and women who didn't live in
The researchers identified depression through answers to an
eight-item questionnaire, and participants in the survey were asked
directly about their use of the Internet for email or any other
About 30 percent of the participants were Internet users. When the
researchers compared depression scores, they found the people who
were going online had a 33 percent lower probability of depression
compared to those who were not.
The study didn't examine how much people used the Internet or
analyze the effects of specific types of Internet use, Cotten
pointed out. But in previous studies, the results suggested that
older adults are mostly interested in communicating with their
family and friends, usually by email, Cotten said.
She explained that a lot of older adults have mobility and health
issues that keep them from being able to travel and visit with
family. But being able to use email to see pictures of their kids,
grandkids or even great grandkids can help them stay in contact.
"So I would really encourage people to help their older loved ones
to get online and not to assume that it's beyond them, because it's
not," she said.
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Cotten added that it may not come as easily to older people as it
does to kids, but her research shows that individuals in their 80s,
90s and even in their 100s can still learn to use computers and the
Adult children who are thinking of getting their parents online
should think about the interface, Cotten advises. Older adults may
prefer tablets rather than regular laptop or desktop computers
because the tablets are easier to use and much more portable.
"Start very simply and let them know that they're not going to break
the technology, and that if something happens, you can help them fix
it or somebody can help them fix it," Cotten said.
"You really have to go a little bit slower than you would with
somebody who's younger and really emphasize repetition — have them
practice sending emails to family members or to friends or going
online to search for different types of things," she said. "Practice
Once older adults begin to see how useful the Internet can be in
their lives, you've got them hooked, Cotten added.
"It's really about how they can see it integrated into their lives
and being useful for them that will help them to stay online," she
The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, online March 26, 2014.
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