Dropping a line to a loved one instead of catching up in person could double their risk of depression, new research shows.
Families should visit their older relatives three times a week to help prevent them from becoming down, experts say.
The new study found that participants who regularly met in person with family and friends were less likely to report symptoms of depression, compared with participants who emailed or spoke on the phone.
The gains people derived from face-to-face socializing endured even years later.
The study is thought to be the first to examine the impact of different types of social contact on the elderly. It also highlights just how important it is to spend time with our older generation – among whom there is said to be an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness in the UK.
The team from Oregon Health and Science University in the US surveyed 11,000 adults aged 50 and older between 2004 and 2010 in two-year waves.
Those who met up with family and friends at least three times each week had the lowest level of depressive symptoms – 6.5 per cent – compared to an 11.5 per cent risk in those who saw friends and family just once every few months.
The study also found that younger participants, aged 50 to 69, suffered less depression if they socialised with friends, while those aged over 70 benefited more from contact with family, the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society reports.
Lead author Dr Alan Teo said: “Research has long supported the idea that strong social bonds strengthen people’s mental health. But we found all forms of socialisation aren’t equal.
“Phone calls and digital communication do not have the same power as face-to-face social interactions in helping to stave off depression.”
Last month, Britain came tenth out of 96 countries on a list of the best and worst places for older people to live. But it was only 27th for health and well-being, partly as a result of its levels of loneliness.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has said the UK suffers from an ‘epidemic’ of loneliness. The Campaign to End Loneliness says that 800,000 people are chronically lonely.