Study Finds that Using the Internet More Improves Mental Health in Older Adults

Life-Long Learning Aug 19, 2020

A recent study done by the University College London shows that increasing interactive internet use for older adults may improve their mental health.

The study assessed more than 9,000 people over the age of 50 over a six-year period from 2012–2017 who live in the UK and found a more positive long-term effect for those who used the internet daily, compared to those who used it monthly or less. Participants who use the internet daily were also found to have an overall higher life satisfaction score and a lower rate of depression.

Mental well-being was found to be overall lower in users who reported using the internet for ‘information access’ and non-work-related or job-seeking ‘communication.’ That should come to no surprise for those who have been keeping abreast of social isolation and loneliness statistics.

Loneliness is the Silent Epidemic

Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, said when releasing a report on the effects of loneliness — “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”

Plus a study by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found that adults 60 years and older who reported feeling lonely had a higher risk for functional decline, where participants’ abilities to perform daily living activities such as bathing, dressing, transferring, toileting, and eating diminish, and there is an increased risk of death.

Thus, if loneliness is left unchecked it can affect a person’s ability to live independently and decrease their mental and physical well-being.

Equity in Internet Access

Notably, all internet access is not equal.

Infographic based on research from University College London

This means there is a huge equity gap not only in access but also in technical knowledge and know-how. To reap the benefits of using internet training, and learning will need to take place in addition to making these resources a basic need — part of the social and health plans implemented by governments.

According to L. Jasmine Kim, former Chief Marketing & Branding Officer of Sutter Health, a major health care system that serves Northern California’s 15 million citizens, governments and health care need to provide aging people with how to effectively use the content on their platforms and the media platform it comes over. “That is one of the key reasons they need to shift to learning and development to engage people by teaching them. That way you can leverage the technology tool to supplement and accelerate real-time teaching.”

Bridging the Digital Divide

To close the gaps and help improve the overall mental well-being of older adults the authors of the study found “clear policy implications, the most pressing of which is the need for interventions to encourage older adults to use the internet, to build and maintain strong social ties, thereby avoiding the damaging impacts of social isolation and loneliness on mental health.”

For many older adults, the internet and technology related to it are not intuitive since they received little to no formal education on how to use it. Thus it is not enough to just provide technology and internet access — — consistent and constant training is essential, especially since there are constant reiteration, upgrades, and new platforms being created

Key Benefits of Online Use for Seniors

That is where technology startups like GetSetUp are entering the market.

  1. GetSetUp is the largest senior education platform tailored exclusively to older adults.
  2. GetSetUp Guides are seniors who teach their peers in live interactive virtual sessions to help bridge barriers to internet use, engagement, and connection.
  3. Usage is fun, simple, and empowering from peers — someone who knows where they are coming from and how to best address their needs

GetSetUp classes offer a one-click button for entry, daily agenda, ‘Aha’ moments to note understanding, plus live video and chat interaction with both the Guide and participants. That way learners get their questions answered then and there live!

GetSetUp partners with a variety of institutions from aging care institutions to aging departments to create educational platforms to help onboard older adults with digital technology. Once older adults feel comfortable with the technology they can go on to use the platform to take leisure classes, attend virtual social events, and participate in a community set up to specifically address the needs of older adults.

According to Medical Xpress, Senior author, Dr. Stephen Jivraj (UCL Epidemiology & Public Health), said: “While some studies suggest that spending an excessive amount of time on the internet correlates with negative mental health in younger age samples, our research suggests that more should be done to encourage internet use among older adults, especially as a tool for building and maintaining social ties to improve wellbeing. Initiatives such as installing public Wi-Fi in areas frequented by older people and in areas where usage may be low due to barriers to access and digital exclusion could help to address this.”

Thus the population at large needs to rethink aging and connections. It is important that we remain connected throughout our lives to fight the negative effects of loneliness, and one way to do that is through the internet.

Therefore health plans, policy providers, hardware, and software need to start taking into account the holistic needs of older adults that include not just adjustments for impairments such as visual or hearing difficulties but also training in empathetic and supportive environments to assure overall well-being and digital adoption.

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