Study finds older adults can benefit from digital therapy

By Laura Lovett
01:24 pm

A new study challenges the idea that online health technology is just for the 20- or 30-somethings. Recently, a study set to be published in the International Journal of Aging and Society in December, concluded that in this research, internet-enabled cognitive behavioral therapy (IECBT) was an effective method of treatment for older people experiencing anxiety and depression. The study also found a larger percentage of older men signing up for the therapy than younger men. 

"This is an important study as it confirms that digital health is not just for millennials and shows how technology is being embraced by older people too,” Sarah Bateup, co-author of the study and chief clinical officer at Ieso Digital Health, whose technology was used in the study, said in a statement. “Online therapy (IECBT) offers an opportunity to reach older adults who are less likely to be referred for psychological therapy by their general practitioner. Older people are much more vulnerable to mental health problems compared to younger adults. Two out of 10 older men (22 percent) and almost one third of older women (28 percent) are affected by depression, compared to one in five adults in the general population.”

The study was a collaboration between Anglia Ruskin University, a university in the East of England and and Ieso, a UK company that delivers online therapy. 

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Participants in the study were either referred by their care provider or self-referred. Each participant filled out a comprehensive self-assessment and were signed to a therapist that triaged and diagnosed the participants. 

In the study, IECBT mirrored face-to-face therapy and involved chat-based communication between the patient and the therapist, taking place in a secure therapy room. All of the transcripts were encrypted and held on a secure site so that the patient and therapist could access them at anytime.

The company had a total of 12,044 patients that were over 18 years old between Q1 2014 and Q3 2016, according to the study. Two hundred and seventy-seven, or 2 percent of those patients, were over 65. Among those over 65, 53 percent identified as women and 45 percent identified as men. By contrast, among younger participants, just 30 percent were male-identified.

Self-referral was also more common among older adults than young adults. In fact, 71 percent of the older patients studied were self-referred, compared to 56 percent of younger people. The study found that the group which self-referred displayed a wider range of conditions than those who were referred by a physician. 

“One interpretation here is that older people may perceive their mental health differently from medical professionals,” the study said. “Medical professionals appear to have a narrower focus on what constitutes potentially treatable mental health conditions in older people, hence the more limited list of diagnoses. Given the opportunity to self-refer, older patients present with symptoms which elicit a wider range of diagnoses, which then go on to be treated.”

The study discussed the rapidly growing population of of seniors accessing the internet. Although seniors only comprised of 2 percent of patients using IECBT in the studied time frame the study called it a small but significant minority. 

As for limitations, the study said it only had a small group of older people using the therapy and the study wasn’t necessarily representative of all older people with mental health conditions. 

“This preliminary study suggests a number of potential avenues for further research, for example exploring the reasons why older men are over-represented among IECBT patients, why rates of self-referral are higher among those aged 65 and over, compared to younger cohorts, and why the range of diagnoses for those who self-refer is wider in this age group,” the study said. 

seniors, CBT, IECBT


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