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URMC / Clinical & Translational Science Institute / Stories / February 2019 / Can Facebook Keep Us Healthy as We Age?

Can Facebook Keep Us Healthy as We Age?

Elderly woman using a tablet surrounded by flowersBy 2020, there will be more people on earth over the age of 65 than ever before. As the elderly population balloons, so does the number of elder orphans: people 65 and over who live alone with no spouse, companion, or children nearby to help them with health decisions, expenses or transportation to and from appointments. Jessica Francis, Ph.D., a UR CTSI Population Health Research postdoctoral fellow, studies this vulnerable population and has found that communicating within virtual communities, like Facebook groups, can help them seek support, share stories, promote well-being, and build a community.

Approximately 13.3 million noninstitutionalized older adults live alone and are at risk for social isolation. Isolated adults are 64 percent more likely to develop dementia and are at greater risk of cognitive decline due to lack of mental stimulation. But the health effects of social isolation extend beyond mental health.

Social isolation can be just as bad as living with a serious long-term illness like diabetes and can increase the risk of high blood pressure and obesity. In fact, the lack of social connections has been shown to have the same impact on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. As a result, socially isolated adults are more likely to visit the doctor, in part just to have human contact, and are more likely to be placed on medication, which adds pressure to the healthcare industry.

Francis, who works in the Center for Health + Technology (CheT), studies how technology and social media can help combat social isolation and promote access to support for vulnerable populations, like elder orphans and individuals with Parkinson’s disease. Through surveys, interviews and focus groups, she gathers information about their technology use, attitudes toward technology and their well-being. 

She’s currently measuring feelings of loneliness, perception of self, and engagement with and preference for types of technology to determine how participating in virtual communities and Facebook groups impacts these populations. So far, her research indicates that these technologies can help us stay connected and maintain our health as we age.


Jessica Francis, PhD.Francis has a doctorate in Information and Media Science from Michigan State University and is focusing on Gerontechnology, the use of technology to promote healthy aging. She will present some of her work mentioned above in March at Translational Science 2019, the annual conference of the Association for Clinical and Translational Science, in Washington, DC.



Written by Katie Crane.

Michael Hazard | 2/14/2019

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