Should older people be using digital to stay healthy?

smartphone-old-ageThere are a number of broad heuristics around healthy ageing, whether it’s keeping ones mind active, exercising or maintaining your social network.  A recent paper suggests we should add the use of digital devices to that list.

“Critics say that people might not be able to connect with others as well as they used to because of the spread of new technologies,” the authors say.  “But there really is this bright side of technology, especially for older people, who may not have the opportunity to connect with many family members to the extent they want to due to physical limitations or geographical separation.”

Indeed, when adults over 80 years of age were quizzed on their digital usage, it revealed that many of them used digital services to support their social activities, which resulted in higher mental wellbeing.  What’s more, if those same digital tools were used to learn new things, this had the knock-on effect of improving physical fitness levels.

Supporting a growing demographic

The over 80s are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the western world, but there has to date been little academic study of their behaviors and habits.  Better understanding will be crucial as more and more of us are likely to live to this ripe old age.

It builds on previous works that have looked at how social media can help the mental health of the over 65s, but these studies seldom include those over 80 in their sample.

“These are different life stages, and they come with their own sets of challenges.  At 65, people are typically entering retirement, and are likely still socially engaged. For those over 80, people typically begin to face more and more health problems, which may prevent them from engaging with others as often as they would like. It’s important to look at these populations separately,” the authors say.

The study was guided by the socio-emotional selectivity theory.  This suggests that as we age, we perceive time differently.  So, as we reach old age, we regard time as more limited, and thus hope to make more meaningful use of it.  This means quality interactions with loved ones rather than meeting new people.

Changing perceptions

Contrary to the popular perception that older people are the least familiar with digital technologies, it emerged that most of the adults in the sample were using at least one device on a regular basis.  What’s more, this usage correlated with higher levels of both physical and mental wellbeing.

The findings suggest that relatively straightforward interventions could have a significant benefit to the quality of life of people as they enter old age, although the authors do urge caution as it was not possible to distinguish correlation and causation in their study.

“We can’t say that using technology will directly improve the well-being of people over age 80. But our findings are suggestive of a viable pathway and may help to inform longitudinal interventions,” they say.

They plan to further test the hypothesis in follow up studies to explore any distinctions between interaction online and in person on the wellbeing of older people, or indeed whether there are differences between specific technologies, such as social media or video conferencing.

What is clear however is that this age group are getting some long overdue attention from the research community.

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