Social isolation and depression are considered the gateway to cognitive decline by some researchers. In fact, studies suggest that loneliness increases the risk of dementia by 40 percent. But for seniors who live alone or away from family, it’s a common issue — 28 percent of people over age 65 live alone in the U.S., and almost 5 percent of people over 50 identified as living with major depression.
A new study suggests that video platforms like Skype could help alleviate depression, decreasing the risk factor associated with cognitive decline. Researchers from Oregon Health & Science University found that of four different communication tools, the benefits of Skype far outweighed those of others like social networks, email and instant messaging.
The two-year study observed the communication tool habits of 1,424 people 60 and over and then surveyed them at the end of the study.
“Video chat came out as the undisputed champion,” said lead author Alan Teo, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at the OHSU School of Medicine and a researcher at the VA Portland Health Care System. “Older adults who used video chat technology such as Skype had significantly lower risk of depression.”
Depression has long been linked to dementia. Studies show people who identify as being depressed score lower on memory tests and actually have smaller brains.
Both depression and isolation are considered modifiable risk factors that can be treated, potentially lowering the risk they impose on brain health.
The study, published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, found that the other three communication tools – instant messaging, social media and email — made no difference in depressive rates. But those who used video chat tools like Skype and FaceTime had half the depressive rates as adults who didn’t use communication technology, even after adjusting for other factors that might contribute to depression, like a prior history of depression.
“To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate a potential link between use of video chat and prevention of clinically significant symptoms of depression over two years in older adults,” the authors wrote.
Researchers said that video is more engaging than scrolling through a feed of updates. But even though it does help stave off feelings of depression and isolation — and therefore, possibly dementia and cognitive decline, it’s no replacement for an active in-person social network, which has been associated with a 60 percent lower risk of dementia.
“I still maintain that face-to-face interaction is probably best of all,” Teo said. “However, if we’re looking at the reality of modern American life, we need to consider these communication technologies. And when we do consider them and compare them, our findings indicate that I’m better off Skyping with my dad in Indiana than sending him a message on WhatsApp.”