The Connected Elderly: Improving Their Health

Posted on July 4, 2012 by

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No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

. . .Any man’s death diminishes me. . .
because I am involved in mankind.

–John Donne

(from freedigitalphotos.net)

As the great enlightenment poet John Donne knew, no man–and we mean woman, too–can survive on his own, cut off from peers. And, as he knew, too, each death one witnesses takes a toll, diminishing the survivor somewhat.

Yet somehow it seems we’ve forgotten the pivotal urgency of social interaction when it comes to the elderly–and left too many to be islands of aloneness.  They suffer their solitude at too great a price.

According to the Profile of Older Americans put out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2010:

  • About 30.1% (11.4 million) of all noninstitutionalized older persons in 2009 lived alone.
  • That was the equivalent of 8.3 million women (38.8% of older women) and 3.0 million men (18.7%).
  • The percentages of elderly living alone increases with age. For example, 49% of women 75 and older lived alone.

Taken together with health deterioration that may make getting out difficult, shrinking social circles, fear of venturing out in bad neighborhoods, the statistics put the elderly at a high risk for social isolation.

This takes a terrible and deadly toll. Seniors who report higher degrees of social isolation also report more incidences of depression. Worse still, the World Health Organization (2003) found that social isolation and exclusion are associated with “increased rates of premature death, lower general well-being, more depression, and a higher level of disability from chronic diseases.”

A 2008 evidence paper on promoting healthy aging in older adults asserted that socially isolated seniors are actually two to three times more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social ties.

But what is to become of the senior so physically debilitated that she can’t get out for social activities, and who has limited visitors to her home? Does loneliness, depression, worse disability–and, ultimately, premature death–have to be her fate?

Not if she’s a technologically savvy senior.  As “Technology Applications and the Fast-Moving Elderly: The Facts on the Ground” found, there are more and more of these with each passing day. By means of internet access and social connection platforms, the elderly can banish the threats that come from isolation, and improve their health with a few e-mails, some posts on Facebook, a tweet or two–and some Google-searching.

The studies are consistent and dramatic.

Take Shiela Cotten’s research from March of this year. Setting out to examine the relationship between Internet use and depression among retired Americans age 50 years or older [I know, they included some spring chickens in here, but the data are actually solidified by that choice], they used 7839 observations from the 2006 Health and Retirement Study (HRS), inquiring about regular use of the Internet among seniors and rating their depression using standardized scales.

The findings were unequivocally positive. Cotten et al conclude:

  • “Internet use reduces the probability of a depression categorization for older adults by about 20–28%.
  • The effects of Internet use on depression are large and positive, resolving, at least to some extent, the lack of evidence supporting the Internet’s impact on depression among older adults.”

Dr. Cotten had other pans on the fire, as she was publishing that study. She was simultaneously researching the impact that the Internet and social networking sites have on the elderly’s relationships and quality of life.

She and her graduate students taught computer courses to 300 seniors at 15 assisted and independent living communities.

An article well worth reading in the Atlantic goes into detail about Cotten’s work.  It cautions that  seniors often had difficulty keeping pace with the 8-week courses. But the testimonials left no doubt about whether social connectedness through the Internet could be a life-changing experience. Asked “How has the Internet changed your life in any way?” sample responses were:

“‘We feel like we’ve joined the human race,’ while another said the computer class was the best thing she’d done since her husband died. One participant’s answer was particularly staggering: ‘We’re not as close to the grave as we thought.'”

Indeed they’re not–with all that connection, they’re more prone to hang out on this side of it.

Even without complete social isolation, feelings of loneliness are damaging–to all ages, but particularly to the elderly.

In a 2012 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association with the telling title, “Loneliness in Older Persons: A Predictor of Functional Decline and Death,” the authors demonstrated that loneliness leads to declines in functional ability and is “also a risk factor for poor health outcomes including death.”

Enter the iPad.

Researchers at Melbourne University’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society created an iPad app specifically for seniors. Called ‘Enmesh,’ it enabled a small group of people in their 80s and 90s to chat online and share pictures.

While all the data is yet to be analyzed, the study’s authors felt it safe to conclude that “that using the Enmesh application to exchange photographs and messages did have a positive effect on participants’ wellbeing and played a role in alleviating feelings of social isolation.”

The corollary is that the app, indirectly, of course, can help keep functionality high and avert loneliness-exacerbated illnesses.

Perhaps social media can even do something about the dread disease of aging: Alzheimer’s. Studies on social interconnectedness and memory abound. One set of researchers found that  memory decline among the most integrated elderly was less than half the rate among the least integrated.

Even once decline has set in, research has long concluded, social contacts keep those with dementia at a higher functioning level. So, with limited real-time interactions, it’s crucial that dementia patients utilize online connectedness.

However, learning what they need to know may be quite a challenge.

Norwegian research scientist Tone Øderud asks, “Why should elderly people be excluded from the social media, which are the communication platform of the future?”

Her question is not simply rhetorical.

She and her fellow researchers are busily developing a “Facebook Light”, with a simpler interface, allowing the elderly with dementia to use it, keep up social contact–and thus keep up functioning.

This ‘Light” version is already being beta-tested in a city  in southern Norway.

Beyond the obvious social functions inherent in Internet use, research also indicates that simply searching the Internet can help prevent cognitive decline.

Participants in a UCLA research study underwent brain scans both while reading and while searching the Internet.

The News Release on the research indicated that compared with reading a book, the Internet provides a multiplicity of choices that require decision-making in regards with what to click and where to go–and that decision-making actively engages cognitive circuitry in the brain.

Principal Investigator Gary Small notes that such online searching can improve neural circuitry, even at an advanced age.

Said Small, “A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older.”

Who knew that all that Google searching was simultaneously preventing dementia?  What can’t Google do for us?

So with a mobile phone or a computer with a connection–even a dial-up from the dark ages–a senior citizen who might otherwise have been isolated can connect with others, and improve his mental and physical health, keep some disease at bay–and even prevent premature death.

As Shakespeare’s Miranda would have said, had she lived in a wireless age,

“O wonder!
How many goodly creations are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such . . .connectability?. . . in’s.”

REFERENCES

Cotten SR, et al. Internet use and depression among older adults. Computers in Human Behavior 2012; 28(2):496–499

Harvard School of Public Health. “Active Social Life May Delay Memory Loss Among US Elderly Population.” ScienceDaily, 29 May 2008. Web. 4 Jul. 2012.

MacCourt, P. Evidence Paper on Promotion of Health Aging of Older Adults. May 2008.

Mobile and broadband technologies for ameliorating social isolation in older people. White Paper . June 2012.

Perissinotto CM, et al. Loneliness in Older PersonsA Predictor of Functional Declineand DeathArchives of Internal Medicine. Published online June 18, 2012

SINTEF. “Social media for dementia patients.”ScienceDaily, 15 Sep. 2011. Web. 27 Jun. 2012.

Social Isolation Among Seniors: An Emerging Issue.  March 2004.

Victor C, Scrambler S, Bond J, Bowling A.  Being alone in later life: loneliness, social isolation and living alone. Reviews in Clinical Gerontology 2000; 10:407-417.

World Health Organisation. The Social Determinants of Health: The Solid Facts-Second Edition, 2003.