A recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society has uncovered potential brain health benefits for older adults who frequently use the internet for various tasks, such as emailing friends or shopping online.
The research revealed that adults between the ages of 50 and 65 who consistently use the internet are at approximately half the risk of developing dementia compared to their peers who do not engage in online activities. The findings suggest that regular internet usage could potentially serve as a protective factor against cognitive decline in this age group.
The study’s authors emphasize the importance of encouraging older adults to embrace technology and engage with the online world, as it may contribute to maintaining their cognitive health.
The Study Design And Findings
The study indicates that engaging in online activities may contribute to the development and preservation of cognitive reserve, which can counteract brain aging and subsequently decrease the risk of dementia, according to the corresponding author, Virginia W. Chang, M.D., an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.
In addition to mental stimulation, the AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health has identified five other key pillars for maintaining brain health. These factors include physical exercise, a well-balanced diet, sufficient sleep, social engagement, and proper management of stress and chronic medical conditions. The study’s findings emphasize the significance of integrating technology into the lives of older adults, as online engagement can provide a valuable means of mental stimulation and contribute to overall cognitive well-being.
Previous research hinted at potential brain health advantages for older adults who use the internet, but the long-term cognitive benefits were not extensively explored. To delve deeper into this subject, Chang and her colleagues conducted a more comprehensive study.
The researchers analyzed data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study (HRS), focusing on a sample of 18,154 adults aged 50 to 65 who did not have dementia at the beginning of the study. Participants were asked if they regularly used the internet for sending and receiving emails or for any other purpose. Approximately two-thirds of the participants reported using the internet, while one-third did not. The study followed these individuals for an average of almost eight years.
Periodic follow-up surveys were carried out via telephone or in-person interviews every two years, consistently asking participants about their internet usage. Throughout the study period, approximately 20 percent of the participants experienced changes in their internet usage habits. To assess the presence of dementia, participants were tested and scored using a widely accepted cognitive assessment tool. The overall incidence of dementia during the study period was found to be 4.68 percent.
In 2013, a small subset of participants was asked to report the number of hours they spent on the internet in the previous week. They were provided with six options, ranging from zero to eight or more hours. The study discovered that adults with two hours or less of internet usage seemed to have the lowest risk of developing dementia. In contrast, those with no internet usage showed a significantly higher estimated risk of dementia. Similarly, adults who spent eight or more hours online were at a higher risk of developing dementia. However, it is important to note that these results should be interpreted cautiously due to the small sample size.
The researchers also observed that the risk difference between regular and non-regular internet users did not vary based on factors such as educational attainment, race-ethnicity, sex, or generation
Future Research And Implications
Chang and her colleagues analyzed changes in internet habits among participants during the course of the study. They discovered that those who began using the internet after the study commenced were associated with a reduced risk of dementia.
The authors of the study propose that “changes in internet usage in late adulthood may influence subsequent cognitive health.” They emphasize the need for further research to “determine the duration of regular internet usage during late adulthood required to experience the cognitive benefits of online engagement.”
Additionally, the researchers call for more studies to explore whether “excessive online engagement may have negative cognitive effects on older adults,” as their initial findings seem to indicate.