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An Apple computer is shown on Google's company campus in Mountain View, California February 9, 2010.

© Robert Galbraith / Reuters

Older Americans who regularly spent time online were about a third less likely to suffer from depression in a new study that compared them with peers who did not use the Internet.

"The largest impacts on depression were actually for those people who lived alone, so it's really suggesting that it's about connecting with others, eliminating isolation and loneliness," lead study author Shelia Cotten said.

Depression affects nearly 8 per cent of Americans over the age of 50, or between five and 10 million people, say the authors in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.

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Older adults are much more likely to experience depression, loneliness and social isolation than younger people, Cotten said.

A researcher in telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University in East Lansing, she wanted to see if getting older people online might lower that risk. Cotten and her colleagues analyzed responses gathered over six years by the U.S. Health and Retirement Survey, a large population study that focuses on the transitions Americans go through as they retire. The data covered 3,075 retired men and women who didn't live in nursing homes.

The researchers identified depression through answers to an eight-item questionnaire, and participants in the survey were asked directly about their use of the Internet for e-mail or any other purposes.

About 30 per cent of the participants were Internet users. When the researchers compared depression scores, they found the people who were going online had a 33-per-cent lower probability of depression compared with those who were not.

The study didn't examine how much people used the Internet or analyze the effects of specific types of Internet use, Cotten pointed out. But in previous studies, the results suggested that older adults are mostly interested in communicating with their family and friends, usually by e-mail, Cotten said.

She explained that a lot of older adults have mobility and health issues that keep them from being able to travel and visit with family. But being able to use e-mail to see pictures of their kids, grandkids or even great-grandkids can help them stay in contact.

"So I would really encourage people to help their older loved ones to get online and not to assume that it's beyond them, because it's not," she said.

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Cotten added that it may not come as easily to older people as it does to kids, but her research shows that individuals in their 80s, 90s and even in their 100s can still learn to use computers and the Internet.

Adult children who are thinking of getting their parents online should think about the interface, Cotten advises. Older adults may prefer tablets rather than regular laptop or desktop computers because the tablets are easier to use and much more portable.

"Start very simply and let them know that they're not going to break the technology, and that if something happens, you can help them fix it or somebody can help them fix it," Cotten said.

"You really have to go a little bit slower than you would with somebody who's younger and really emphasize repetition – have them practice sending emails to family members or to friends or going online to search for different types of things," she said. "Practice is key."

Once older adults begin to see how useful the Internet can be in their lives, you've got them hooked, Cotten added.

"It's really about how they can see it integrated into their lives and being useful for them that will help them to stay online," she said.

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