An analysis of the data revealed that the risk of depression increased as the frequency of face-to-face contact with family and friends decreased.
People aged 50 and older who see family and friends at least three times a week are about half as likely to develop depression as those who have such social encounters only every few months, according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society.
Physicians “should consider encouraging face-to-face social interactions as preventive strategy for depression,” the authors of the study conclude.
The influence of social relationships on health has long intrigued researchers, and many previous studies have found an association between social isolation and depression, particularly among older populations.
This new study, which was conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and Portland State University in Oregon, looked at the topic from a slightly different angle. It examined whether the mode of social contact — meeting in person, talking on the telephone, or communicating through letter or e-mail — also made a difference in the risk of depression.
“Surveys that assess social contact have almost invariably lumped various means of contact and types of social relationships together or simply not distinguished between them,” the study’s authors write.
Study details and key findings
For the current study, researchers used 2004-2010 data collected from more than 11,000 people participating in the Health and Retirement Survey, an ongoing study of American adults aged 50 and older.
The participants were asked (among other questions) about the frequency of their social contact with their children, other family members and friends. They were also asked what form that contact took (in person, on the telephone or in writing).
Depression among the participants was determined using a standard method of assessment that included a face-to-face interview.
An analysis of the data revealed that the risk of depression increased as the frequency of face-to-face contact with family and friends decreased. People who visited with their loved ones at least three times a week had a 6.5 percent risk of developing depression within two years. That compared with an 11.5 percent risk for those who had such visits only every few months.
The frequency of telephone calls —the most common form of social contact with family and friends in the study — was not found to have a discernable effect on the development of depression. Neither did the frequency of written contact, including e-mail.
That last finding, say the study’s authors, supports recent research that suggests that following friends and family through Facebook and other social media may not influence health in the same way — or to the same degree — as face-to-face contact.
The current study’s authors emphasize that their findings come with an important caveat regarding the effect of in-person contact — “at least in older adults’ relationship with their children” — on the risk of depression.
“If frequent contact is also characterized by inter-personal conflict,” they write, “[the] risk of depressive symptoms is greater rather than less.”
Yet another interesting finding from the study is that at different decades, different people appear to help protect against depression.
“For those in their 50s and 60s, social contact with friends may be particularly important in preventing future depressive symptoms,” the researchers write. “In contrast, results in those aged 70 and older suggest that frequent contact with children or other family members is protective against depression.”
Limitations — and implications
Of course, this study is observational, which means it doesn’t prove a link between the frequency of face-to-face social contact and the risk of depression. It shows only that there is a correlation between the two.
It could very well be that some other factor is behind the results. The most obvious possibility is that people who are predisposed to depression may be more likely to withdraw from social contact with friends and family.
Still, Dr. Alan Teo, the study’s lead author and a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Portland Health Care System, says he is convinced that in-person conversations have a more positive effect on mood than telephone or e-mail contact.
“Meeting friends and family face-to-face is strong preventive medicine for depression,” he told HealthDay reporter Randy Dotinga.
“Think of it like taking your vitamins, and make sure you get a regular dose of it,” he added.
You can download and read the study in full at the Journal of the American Geriatric Society website.