Social Media Lowers Depression Risk for Pain Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Seniors citizens who have chronic pain are significantly less likely to suffer from depression if they participate in an online social network, according to a new study.

Researchers at the University of Michigan reviewed the results of a 2011 survey of more than 3,400 Medicare patients aged 65 and older, in which respondents were asked about their depression, pain and social participation. About 17% of the seniors used an online social network in the previous month.

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Researchers found that seniors who had chronic pain were often depressed, socially isolated and less likely to participate in activities that require face-to-face interaction.

However, online social participation appeared to buffer the impact of pain on depression. Seniors in pain who did not use an online social network were twice as likely to become depressed.

“The results suggest that for those in pain, it may be possible that online social participation can compensate for reduced offline social participation, especially where it pertains to the maintenance of mental health and well-being. This is critical because the onset of pain can often lead to a ‘downward spiral’ of social isolation and depression, resulting in adverse outcomes for the health of older adults,” wrote lead author Shannon Ang, a doctoral candidate at the U-M Department of Sociology and Institute for Social Research.

“Online social participation serves as a way to possibly arrest the development of pain toward depression through this pathway, by ensuring that older adults remain socially connected despite the presence of pain.”

Social media may also preserve cognitive function and psychological well-being in the elderly, researchers said. The findings are significant in an aging society where social isolation and loneliness are key determinants of well-being.

"Our results may be possibly extended to other forms of conditions (e.g., chronic illnesses, functional limitations) that, like pain, also restrict physical activity outside of the home," Ang said.

The survey data did not identify what types of social media – such as Facebook or Twitter – were more effective in warding off depression and social isolation.

The study was published in the Journals of Gerontology.