July 28 (UPI) -- Older adults seeking to maintain social contact during the pandemic can use texting and email in the short-term, but it doesn't effectively replace normal social interaction, a study presented Wednesday during the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Denver found.
While these modes of communication help reduce loneliness and "blue" moods caused by social isolation, however, they do not provide the same level of connection as in-person contact, the researchers said.
During the pandemic, on average, older adults in the study spent 123 minutes per week engaged in in-person visits, down from the 282 minutes per week before COVID-19, the data showed.
Conversely, time spent on phone and video calls increased by about 25% during the pandemic, to 141 minutes per week from 113 pre-COVID-19.
Similarly, time spent communicating via text and email rose by about 30%, to 57 minutes per week from 44 pre-pandemic.
"Older adults are at greater risk for social isolation during COVID-19," study co-author Chao-Yi Wu told UPI in a phone interview.
"Texting and email can help reduce feelings of loneliness and depressed mood, [but] they are not enough to maintain their [levels of social activity] pre-COVID," said Wu, a post-doctoral researcher at the Oregon Center for Aging and Technology in Portland.
In the early stages of the pandemic in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that older adults avoid contact with others as much as possible to limit their exposure to COVID-19.
In addition, although many nursing homes nationally restricted visitors to their facilities, dozens across the country saw large-scale outbreaks and significant fatalities.
"Isolation is a major factor that can impact mental health and risk for dementia," Claire Sexton, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association, told UPI in an email.
"It's no secret that people -- especially older, vulnerable adults -- experienced heightened levels of isolation throughout COVID-19-related lockdowns," said Sexton, who was not part of the texting study.
Sexton said research presented at the conference suggests telecommunications significantly reduced "blueness" in older adults during the pandemic -- underscoring the importance of human connection to mental health.
For this study, Wu and her colleagues analyzed a total of 4,774 weeks of survey data -- including 3,047 before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic -- for 146 adults ages 76 to 86 in the United States.
Participants were asked to estimate the amount of time they spent seeing friends and family in person versus communicating with them via email and text or phone and video chat, the researchers said.
After the start of the pandemic, time spent in in-person visits declined by nearly 60%, while time spent emailing and texting or communicating by phone and video chat increased.
During the pandemic, every one hour increase in time texting and emailing with friends per week was associated with a 32% reduction in "blueness" -- or depressed mood -- three or more days per week.
While these modes of communication hadn't previously shown the same benefits on "blueness," -- and didn'tt provide the same level of mood enhancement as in-person visits -- the researchers said writing, texting and emailing did so during the pandemic.
"We still saw a lot of depression in older adults in our study due to reduced in-person contact," Wu said.
"This is a vulnerable population that tends to be isolated from technology -- they may not know how to set up Zoom meetings -- there should be more efforts to help these older adults explore other technologies to maintain both social and mental health," she said.