May 31, 2023
Exchanging emails with friends, posting on Facebook or Instagram, booking a vacation on a Web site or shopping online may help to protect against dementia, a new study suggests. The study found that older adults who regularly used the internet were at lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
For the study, researchers tracked 18,154 adults aged 50 to 65 for an average of eight years; some were followed for up to 17 years. All were part of the long-running Health and Retirement Study, which collects information on the health and well-being of a representative sample of older Americans.
At the start of the study, participants were asked: “Do you regularly use the World Wide Web, or the internet, for sending and receiving e-mail or for any other purpose, such as making purchases, searching for information, or making travel reservations?”
During the study period, almost 5 percent of the participants were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
The researchers found that those who were regular internet users had about half the risk of developing dementia than their peers who did not use the internet regularly. Those who used the internet for two hours or less per day had the lowest dementia risk. However, participants who used the internet for longer periods (some were online for up to eight hours a day) tended to have a higher risk, suggesting excessive internet use may undo beneficial effects. The findings were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
“Online engagement may help to develop and maintain cognitive reserve, which can in turn compensate for brain aging and reduce the risk of dementia,” said study author Dr. Virginia W. Chang, an associate professor of global public health at New York University. Cognitive reserve refers to the brain’s ability to adapt to age-related changes or disease-related pathology to maintain normal function. If some brain cells are lost to Alzheimer’s disease, the theory goes, enough brain cells and connections remain to help keep memory and thinking functions intact.
The findings are consistent with earlier research suggesting that mental stimulation may help to keep the brain in good working order. Learning new computer skills, for example, can be mentally challenging, particularly for older people, and help to keep the brain stimulated. Reaching out to friends via email or Facebook can likewise help to maintain social connections, which have been linked to a lower risk of dementia as we age.
The findings show only an association and cannot prove cause and effect. People who are educated and have access to computers may have other lifestyle habits, like regular exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet and not smoking, that may lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. But the study was large and suggests that regular use of the internet and maintaining our computer skills may be one more way to help keep the brain sharp as we age.
By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Source: Gawon Cho, BA, BBA; Rebecca A. Betensky, PhD; Virginia W. Chang, MD, PhD: “Internet usage and the prospective risk of dementia: A population-based cohort study.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, May 3, 2023