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Depression risk in older adults decreases with frequent in-person contact

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When you want to check in on your grandmother nearby, it may be tempting to just pick up the phone. But a new study suggests you should head over for a visit instead. Frequent face time trumps phone calls or e-mail in helping to ward off depression in older adults, the researchers found.

The study, published this month in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, included data on more than 11,000 people age 50 and older. Those who met with family and friends once every few months or less were nearly twice as likely to be depressed two years later than those who met up very often, i.e., three or more times per week. Frequency of phone or e-mail contact with family and friends had no clear effects on depression risk.

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That face-to-face contact is more beneficial seems to be common sense, “but the special result we get from this study is there’s a specific effect of meeting up with people that’s not explained by other factors,” said lead author
Dr. Alan Teo, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University and a researcher at the VA Portland Health Care System. “We looked at other forms of contact and other variables that could alternatively explain depression, but still found that in-person interaction has a potent benefit.”

Past research has shown that the quality and quantity of people’s social relationships can affect their physical and mental health. Yet this is the first study to look at the links between type of social contact and depression.

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The researchers examined data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, which surveys a nationally representative sample of older adults every two years. Participants completed assessments of depressive symptoms and reported how often they had face-to-face, phone, or written or e-mail contact with family members and friends. The researchers controlled for potentially confounding factors such as preexisting depressive symptoms, health status, and participants’ geographical proximity to their children.

People who met with family or friends three or more times a week had a 6.5 percent chance of reporting depressive symptoms two years later, while those who met up once every few months or less had an 11.5 percent risk. Those who fell in between had an intermediate risk: Seeing friends and family once or twice a week was linked to a 7.3 percent chance of subsequent depression, while in-person contact once or twice a month was linked to an 8.1 percent risk.

While the research doesn’t explain why face-to-face contact is more beneficial, “we have the sense it’s a more meaningful interaction,” Teo said. “People may be more invested in the interaction, and there may be something about the physical closeness — the ability to show empathy, for instance, or to receive an embrace.”

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In-person contact wasn’t protective in all cases. For those reporting interpersonal conflict with their children, the risk of depression rose with the amount of contact.

The benefits of regular face-to-face interaction with friends and family are likely to apply to adults of all ages, Teo said. “It seems to be preventive medicine for depression,” he said. “Just like the doctor tells you to make exercise a part of your routine, we should make face-to-face time a regular part of our week.”

For older adults, frequent social contact may also help protect against cognitive decline, said Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She added that the study’s findings may offer reassurance to families.

“Relatively few [instances of] in-person contact were protective against depression,” said Donovan, who was not involved in the study. “One to two visits per week were protective — almost as much so as three or more per week.”

Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail
.com.
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