Frequent get-togethers with their children or friends could help ward off depression in older adults more effectively than phone or written contact, a U.S. study finds.

"The key finding is that meeting friends and family face to face acts as strong preventive medicine for depression, and specifically we found the more often you got together in person, the lower the risk of depression," said Dr. Alan Teo, a psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, who led the research.

Phone contact protected against depression in only one situation - when the individual was already depressed, Teo and his team note in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Email and other written contacts showed no conclusive benefit, Teo told Reuters Health.

Nearly 8 percent of adults age 50 and older were depressed in a 2006 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 16 percent had experienced an episode of depression in their lifetime.

Past research suggests that lack of social contact with family and friends can make elderly people feel isolated, lonely and send them into depression, the authors note. But much of that research combined different modes of contact.

Teo said his own face-to-face contact with his father, who is in his 70s, rather than their usual text messaging and Facebook exchanges, spurred his interest in the study.

"I thought about when I do get together face-to-face, how meaningful it is," said Teo, who is also a researcher and clinician with the Veterans Administration Portland Health Care System.

Between 2004 and 2010, the 11,065 adults in the study - all in their 50s, 60s and 70s - were surveyed twice. Researchers asked about their social contacts, interpersonal conflicts, ability to complete activities of daily living, and any depressive symptoms, such as loss of appetite, inability to shake-off the blues and trouble concentrating.

At the first survey and again two years later, about 13 percent had significant depressive symptoms.

After adjusting for age, wealth, ability to complete daily living tasks, housing size, social support and interpersonal conflict, those who met with children, family or friends no more than once every few months had an 11 percent chance of depressive symptoms two years later, compared to an 8 percent risk among those with once- or twice-monthly contact. Those with three or more times weekly contact had only a 6 percent risk.

People who met with friends once or twice a week were also much less likely to develop depression than those with contact only several times monthly.

For people age 70 and older, meeting with children was more protective against depression, while those age 50 to 69 benefited more from seeing friends.

But when in-person contact and interpersonal strife with children both rose, risk of depressive symptoms also increased.

"The details of oppressing isolation haven't been explored to this extent," said Dr. Robert Abrams, a psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. "Everybody knows that isolation isn't good but (knowing) exactly what kind of contact and with whom and what mode is most helpful, at least on a public health scale," said Abrams, who wasn't involved in the study.

Dr. Robert Shulman, co-chair of psychiatry at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, said the results showed the importance of human interaction with family or friends, and that "telephone and other means just don't cut it."

Shulman, who also was not involved in the study, typically asks older patients how often they see their kids or if they only call.

"You can just see the long faces sometimes where they feel forgotten by family," Shulman said. "We always encourage families to come in with patients and encourage these kinds of relationships."

Meeting with peer support specialists (as supportive friends) could also help stave off depression in older adults, Teo said. "I think there's a suggestion that the younger folks should make a concerted effort to reach out in person with those who are older," he added.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1Mc6BAQ Journal of the American Geriatics Society, online October 6, 2015.