By Cheryl Platzman Weinstock

(Reuters Health) – – Online socializing may weaken the tie between pain and depression for older people, a U.S. study suggests.

People in chronic pain are at risk of depression to start with. When pain makes them stay home more, interacting with friends and family less, it only adds to this risk, the researchers write in the Journals of Gerontology, Series B.

The 3,401 study participants were 67 or older, and all lived in the community rather than in a caregiving facility. About one-third lived alone, and 1,833, or 54 percent, said they’d been bothered by pain in the last month.

Among people with pain, the rate of depression was lower with social media use. Six percent of those who used social media also reported symptoms of depression, compared with 15 percent of those who didn’t use social media.

The new analysis is one of the first to investigate whether social media can help alleviate the stresses of social isolation brought on by pain, said co-author Shannon Ang, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“Using online social media to maintain contact with family members and friends is a good way to compensate for seniors who restrict their social activities due to pain. It is not going to replace seeing people in person, but it will help supplement their reduced activities,” Ang said in a phone interview.

“For us, this study is about preserving mental health,” he added.

In the U.S., 57 percent of people born in 1945-1964 and 23 percent of those born before 1945 use social media, according to a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.

For the new study, Ang and his coauthor looked at data for 2013 and 2014 from the National Health and Aging Trends Study, an annual survey that tracks Medicare beneficiaries’ physical and cognitive health over time.

Every month, an average, the participants engaged in one formal social activity – such as attending religious services or a club meeting – and about two informal social activities – such as spending time with friends at their homes. Only 17 percent had used online social networks.

Ang hopes to see more programs and services that teach older adults to use computers and navigate social media sites.

He and his team also hope to look in more detail into how long, how often and which social media sites older people should use to help ward off the mental health effects of pain, social isolation and loneliness.

The current study wasn’t designed to prove whether or how using social media might help stave off depression, or whether people with depression or pain might use social media less than others. Another limitation is that the survey data didn’t include details about types of social media sites used or how participants used them.

“It’s very well known that social support is helpful for depression and physical symptoms. It’s a growing area of interest in research and clinical care,” said Dr. William Pirl of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Pirl would hesitate to recommend social media to all older adults with pain and loneliness, however.

“People respond differently to it. Some people can become more anxious hearing other peoples’ stories or about other treatments for what they’re experiencing. There’s a lot of variability of whether social media is right for you,” he said.

People can also feel supported with phone calls or video conferencing, mobile apps or other technology that may have similar effects, he noted.

SOURCE: Journals of Gerontology, Series B; online September 27, 2018.