Adults 50 and older are the fastest-growing demographic on the Internet. Many older adults use social networks such as Facebook to catch up with friends and family. But when it comes to boosting your health, seeing people face-to-face is far more beneficial than any online interaction with Facebook friends.
"The contact we get there is not really sufficient and it's a very poor replacement," says Susan Pinker, a Montreal-based psychologist and author. Pinker's latest book, "The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier, Happier, and Smarter" (Spiegel & Grau, $26), cites scores of research reports that show human interaction is good for your health. "We have the illusion in our society that if we Skype people or text or email, it is as good as seeing them in person, but in fact that's not what the data are telling us."
Pinker says when we have face-to-face contact, a cascade of neurochemical events takes place. A simple touch can relieve stress and boost the immune system. "Even a little fist bump or a little pat can spark a biochemical event in both people," she says. Her research shows that older adults who regularly gather with friends are likely to live, on average, 15 years longer than those with small or nonexistent social circles.
Many older adults whose social circles have diminished because of time or circumstances find it hard to form new bonds, especially in suburban areas like Long Island. "It's more difficult in car-dependent communities to meet people because you just don't bump into them on the way to the store," Pinker says. But you can build new social circles. Pinker points to voluminous research that shows volunteering offers enormous physical and emotional benefits. Long Island's senior centers offer numerous activities in a social setting. Local libraries offer a full slate of events where you can socialize with others.
And while spending time online can actually increase loneliness, the Internet can serve as a tool to get you out of the house. The popular website meetup.com, for example, matches people with similar interests so they can gather at events and enjoy activities together. For a list of local Meetup groups, go to nwsdy.li/meetup. (You can adjust the ZIP code and change the distance filter.)
Regular contact with others should be high on an older adult's list of priorities. "To protect your health and your well-being and your happiness, it's as important as getting exercise or eating properly," Pinker says. "This is something that is very much underestimated by people."