Technology can Reduce Loneliness and Improve the Physcial and Mental Health of Older Adults

      When thinking of ways for the elderly to improve their health, most people think of exercise routines, trivia and puzzles for the mind, and healthy eating. However, a new study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research is changing our ideas of how to improve health in older generations. They found that social technology is not only becoming more popular with older adults, but it is producing physical and mental health benefits.

Social technology is viewed as emailing, using social networks, making online video calls, chatting online, and using smartphones. These behaviors are directly associated with better self-rated health, fewer chronic illnesses, higher subjective wellbeing, and fewer depressive symptoms. Each physical and mental health benefit due to social technology usage was related to a reduction in loneliness. Close relationships are a major factor in determining physical health and well-being. Social isolation is directly linked to loneliness in older adults, which is now shown to be directly connected to health issues.

     While exploring the link between social technology and health in Americans 50 years and older, the study was also able to make conclusions on the participants' attitudes around technology. Opposite of the long held ideas of elders struggling to make use of technology, the study found overwhelmingly positive feedback on social technology. This response predicts an improvement in the areas of health associated with reduced loneliness. On a more frequent basis, the willingness of older adults to use social technology will reduce stress and depression.

Increased social technology use led to higher health ratings, fewer chronic illnesses, and fewer depressive symptoms

      The first aspect of social technology tested was if the benefits of social technology also extended to physical and mental health in older adults. This study had 5 main categories. Each category asked questions that were rated on a numeric scale with the lowest number representing the least amount, and the largest number representing the highest amount. The first category was loneliness, followed by subjective health, then chronic illness, subjective well-being, and lastly depression. Subjective health rankings were how participants viewed their own health and subjective well-being ranked satisfaction with life. There were 8 chronic conditions indexed: high blood pressure, diabetes, caner or a malignant tumor of any kind, coronary heart disease, emotional, nervous, or psychiatric problems, arthritis or rheumatism, and stroke.

    Greater technology use was associated with lower loneliness, better health, fewer chronic illnesses, and lower depression. Subjective well-being was unrelated to social technology use in this study. Likewise, loneliness was associated with worse subjective health, more chronic illness, lower subjective wellbeing, and higher depression. The only significant difference was in gender where woman reported lower loneliness but higher depression compared to men.

Contrary to prior studies, older adults generally had positive attitudes toward technology.

     The idea that older adults dislike and are inept with technology has been a long-held stigma in modern society. The second aspect of social technology tested was seniors' attitudes about the usability and benefits of technology. The "digital divide" between generations that grew up with technology and those that didn't is closing. Previous studies enhanced this stigma by showing older adults lacked both the skill and the motivation to learn how to navigate social connectors. Contrary to this bleak look, CapTel reported that internet usage among the elderly has rapidly increased over the years, including 43% of those aged 65 and older are actively engaged in social media networks like Facebook.

    Within the 591 participants of the social technology study, 11 subgroups, ranging from 211 to 366 participants, were formed to assess attitudes toward technology. Nine groups answered a single yes or no question. The remaining two groups, rating overall satisfaction and overall difficulty of technology, ranked on a four choice scale. The study found that the majority of older adults felt that social technology saves time, offers flexibility in communication, is easy to use, is easily available, and is something they now consider a necessity. Compared to the majority who gave positive feedback, only about half the participants recognized social technology can be too expensive, too complicated, too hard to learn, too difficult to keep up with, and take too much time to learn.

    The two scaled questions had positive results as well. The first question tested the participants' overall satisfaction with technology. Participants could choose which out of the following four choices best described their overall satisfaction: very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, not very satisfied, not satisfied at all. Very satisfied had the largest response, but 95.6% of respondents indicated they were at the very least somewhat satisfied with technology. The second question tested the same way for overall difficulty participants had with technology. Most found technology to be not very difficult, and overall, 77.2% of the participants did not experience a significant amount of difficulty when using technology.

Loneliness related social technology use to health and well-being in older adults.

     Once the link between social technology and the health of older adults was established, the results were re-examined to test if technology use also reduced loneliness. They found that technology use was significantly associated with loneliness, such that technology use predicted lower loneliness, which then predicted better mental and physical health. Therefore, social technology reduces loneliness, which in turn leads to better subjective health, less chronic illness, and less depression. The observation that social technology confers health benefits through decreases in loneliness is consistent with various literatures on technology use and health among older adults.

    Another study, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that loneliness is a common source of distress, suffering, and impaired quality of life in older persons. It was a predictor of functional decline and death among other health detriments. The current study re-establishes this connection and relates social technology use to loneliness. More than just an improvement of physical conditions, social technology provides a psychological mechanism through which technology can improve not only mental health, but the lives of older adults.

Social relationships supported by email, social networks, online video calls, online chatting, and smartphone use reduce stress and depression.

     Primarily, social technology keeps older adults engaged with life, mentally and physically. While there will be evident long term effects, their willingness to engage in social technology is already producing positive results. On a practical level, social relationships reduce stress and depression, enhancing physical health. It also has indirect positive influences. For example, individuals in older adults' social networks have the ability to persuade them to adhere to medical treatments, leading to faster recovery after an illness. Social technology, whether a positive or negative influence on young people, is benefitting older adults everyday.

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