Research shows that face time—not FaceTime—is the best way to fend off the blues.
A study published Monday in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society notes that there are remarkable benefits to being physically present with a loved one—and they’re superior to the benefits of just picking up a phone for a quick chat.
The researchers used data from a University of Michigan longitudinal study called the Health and Retirement Survey, which surveyed 11,000 adults aged 50 and older between 2004 and 2010. The survey conducted waves every two years, so researchers were able to follow the participants’ progress over time. The survey measured a wide variety of health and social factors, including how much time a person spent socializing, with whom they spent this time, as well as self-reported signs of depression.
They found that participants who physically met with friends or family at least three times a week were the least likely to report depressive symptoms—just 6.5% of them reported such symptoms. At the other end of the spectrum were people who interacted with those close to them infrequently—every few months or less—who were nearly twice as likely to report symptoms of depression.
Lead study author Alan Teo, who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University, says the connection between in-person contact and wellbeing isn’t just a correlation. “We adjusted for all sorts of things that could influence the findings, like having depressive tendencies from before,” he says. “And this is a longitudinal study that looks at people over time, not just at a single moment. What we found is that this is something that isn’t random—it’s more likely to be causal.”
Participants between the ages of 50 and 69 seemed to derive the most benefit when their friends dropped by to visit. But those 70 and older fared better when interactions were with family. “It could be that when you get older, you find family more meaningful than friends because you’re at a different stage in your life,” Teo says.
Teo thinks it’s not just older adults that can take something away from this study. He looks at making a phone call with those near and dear as a first step, but scheduling together time as “preventive medicine, like getting a regular dose of vitamins.”