Dealing with pain can be a significant barrier to staying socially active, but there may be other options for socializing beyond in-person contact that can be beneficial for older adults’ well-being.
To find out if pain encourages older adults to engage in more online social activity, researchers examined data from 3,401 community-dwelling adults age 65 and better who participated in the National Health and Aging Trends Study in 2013 and 2014. They focused on participants’ reported levels of depressive symptoms, pain, online social activity (using a social network site in the last month), formal social activity (attending religious services or clubs), and informal social activity (visiting or meeting up with friends). Analyses controlled for sleep problems, presence of health conditions or disability, cognitive functioning, engagement in other online activities, and sociodemographic characteristics.
In general, older adults who engaged in any type of social activity at baseline (2013) were less likely to be depressed at follow-up (2014), while older adults who reported pain at baseline were more likely to be depressed at baseline and at follow-up. Digging deeper, the researchers found no difference in baseline social activity (both online and in-person) between older adults with pain and those without pain. At follow-up, however, older adults with pain tended to engage in less formal social activity than those without pain. There was a trend for baseline pain leading to more online and less informal social activity, but this was not significant.
Even more interesting, however, was the finding that online social activity acted as a buffer in the relationship between pain and depression. Older adults with pain who used social network sites were at no greater risk of developing depression than older adults without pain. By comparison, social network site non-users with pain had nearly double the risk of depression at follow-up.
While dealing with aches and pains is a common aspect of growing older, it places older adults at greater risk of developing depression. Engaging in online social activity may be effective in buffering this risk, because it helps older adults avoid the struggles of dealing with pain in public.
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Ang S and Chen T-Y. Going online to stay connected: online social participation buffers the relationship between pain and depression. Journals of Gerontology: Social Sciences (2019), 74(6), 1020-1031.