Consider two methods of communication.
Method 1: Chatting face to face, a method Homo sapiens has employed for about 100,000 years. (Actually, no one knows how long human beings have conversed using language, but that’s the estimate made by Noam Chomsky, the world’s most famous linguist, so let’s go with that.)
Method 2: Chatting on the phone, emailing, tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing, or blogging. We’ve done the phone thing for roughly a century, email for perhaps 20 years, and the rest for less than 10.
So… which of these, done often, is most likely to keep depression at bay?
Long-suffering readers of these missives know my mantra — if we co-evolved with a behavior, it probably promotes health and happiness. Conversely, new human behaviors are guilty until proven innocent.
And that’s why Method 1 wins handily, at least among folks over 50.
Here’s the lowdown:
A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that among older adults, those who met regularly in person with family and friends were much less likely to be depressed than those who emailed or spoke on the phone.
Researcher Alan Teo, MD, pointed out that strong social bonds have long been known to support emotional health. But this was the first study to assess what type of communication was best.
And the result was unequivocal.
Teo and his team looked at more than 11,000 people in the U.S. aged 50 and older. All were participants in the longitudinal Health and Retirement Study at the University of Michigan.
The team looked at how often each person spoke in person; on the telephone; and through writing, including email, with friends and family.
Then they assessed the risk of depression two years later.
They discovered that having a low level of face-to-face social contact almost doubled the risk of becoming depressed two years later.
Conversely, it didn’t seem to matter whether the subjects had a few or many phone conversations or written or email communications. These had no effect on the likelihood of depression.
So… is there a “prescription” here?
Well, subjects who had face-to-face encounters with family and friends at least three times a week had the fewest depressive symptoms two years later.
Sounds good to me.
It also sounds like a bare minimum.
I’ll be frank. The most health-destructive trend in modern life is not overprocessed carbohydrates. It’s not sedentary lifestyles. It’s not air or water pollution, damaging as those may be.
The most health-destructive trend is the increasing tendency of people to isolate.
I’ve cited this information before, but it’s worth repeating. A Brigham Young University study published in March looked at earlier studies encompassing about 3 million people.
It found that loneliness is more dangerous to health than obesity, and roughly as dangerous as alcoholism.
While it’s true that in the BYU study the dangerous physical health effects of isolation became more pronounced as people passed age 65, the negative effects of isolation crossed all age boundaries.
Perhaps modern 20-somethings will soon find using social media to be as fulfilling and health-supporting as what the Silicon Valley types call “meatspace” discussion.
But I doubt it.
The world changes swiftly. Our evolution-driven needs are far less tractable.
For a future that any of us is likely to be around to see, meatspace will likely retain its value — the mocking moniker notwithstanding.
If you are human, I believe you can safely conclude that anything short of regularly conversing with another human being who shares your physical space is dangerous to both mental and physical health.
But I dislike framing this as a negative. So let’s flip it.
At a deep level, woven into our DNA, being with real people in real places can help make us physically and mentally vibrant.
So are social media useless?
Not at all.
Text, email, tweet, or Facebook message your friend and tell him or her where to meet you.
Editor, Natural Health Solutions
1. Alan Teo, M.D., M.S. Does Mode of Contact with Different Types of Social Relationships Predict Depression Among Older Adults? Evidence from a Nationally Representative Survey. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, October 2015