Dementia: Browsing the Internet can help protect against dementia

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According to a study, regular Internet browsing may be beneficial to brain health among the elderly. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Regular internet use by older people is associated with a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia, according to a recent study.
  • The study also found a sweet spot for internet use of up to 2 hours a day, beyond which the risk of developing dementia is likely to increase.
  • According to experts, support should be offered to older people to use new online technologies and address barriers to access.

A new study explores the effect of internet use among older people as a means of preventing dementia.

The study finds that older people who use the internet regularly are almost half as likely to develop dementia than those who don’t use the internet regularly.

For an average of 7.9 years and up to 17.1 years, the study authors monitored the cognitive health of 18,154 adults who did not have dementia. The people in the study ranged in age from 50 to 64.9 years old at the start of the study.

Regular Internet users had a 43% reduced risk of developing dementia compared to non-regular users. At the end of the study, 4.68% of individuals had been diagnosed with dementia.

The study also suggested that the beneficial effects of internet use depended on the degree to which people were online, presenting a U-curve of the data.

Those who never went online or were there for more than two hours were left at the highest risk of dementia. However, the authors caution that small sample sizes prevented significant differences from being observed between user groups.

The study authors also examined whether education level, racial ethnicity, gender, and generation impacted the association between Internet use and dementia risk. They found that dementia risk did not vary based on these factors.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Society of Geriatrics.

According to Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatric family medicine specialist at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, who was not involved in this study, there was a kind of sweet spot that if you were on the Internet for half an hour to 2 hours a day, it was protective against dementia.

Too much time on the internet was either unprotective or potentially harmful, he stressed.

Dr. Kaiser is co-founder of Determined Health, an organization dedicated to helping older people strengthen their social ties.

With excessive use of the Internet, Dr. Kaiser noted that if older people fatally scroll or compulsively scan social media feeds laden with bad news, they can be highly exposed to negative images of aging and feel less self-worth. and feel bad for getting old [] that would be an example where [too much time] could potentially have a negative effect.

Too much time spent on the internet can also promote an unhealthy and more sedentary lifestyle.

The study didn’t capture exactly what its subjects were doing online, which could influence the study’s conclusions.

Dr Snorri Bjorn Rafnsson, Ph.D. of the University of West London in the UK, also not involved in the research Medical News Today that these particular findings warrant further investigation.

What are the reasons why some older adults may be spending an inordinate amount of time online? Are they alone? Socially isolated? What other potential cognitive/physical risks might they have? On the other hand, what is happening among those who don’t use the Internet at all? I think these are questions that could be explored further in future studies.

Dr. Snorri Bjorn Rafnsson

According to Dr. Kaiser, we know that learning new things, staying cognitively engaged is key to protecting our brains and reducing the risk of dementia.

We could say that using the Internet in later life could have direct cognitive benefits because learning and using new technologies could stimulate the brain and thus positively impact people’s cognitive function, said Dr. Rafnsson.

Dr. Rafnsson noted that older adults may be using the Internet to search for general information or for information related to their health. The advent of telehealth presents yet another reason older people are spending time online.

Regular use of the internet can also provide beneficial social interaction with others. The Surgeon General of the United States, in an advisory titled Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, describes the importance of feeling connected to others.

In general, participation in Internet activities can promote a positive view of aging and this can lead to health benefits. Dr. Kaiser cited the work of Dr. Becca Levy, author of Breaking the age code.

He described it as an amazing piece of work where we know that our perceptions of aging actually impact how we age in terms of longevity, dementia risk, just how we think about aging.

Dr. Kaiser has suggested three pathways through which negative beliefs about age can influence the risk of dementia and aging:

  • Having a negative outlook is known to be bad for your health
  • Mistreating your body like an old car that shouldn’t be on the road for long is a recipe for bad health
  • High cortisol levels due to stress and systemic inflammation.

Dr. Rafnsson proposed that older adults should be supported to learn and use new online technology for any purpose they wish.

There are many older people who still face various obstacles, he explained, including lack of technical skills, costs, lack of social support, etc.

These barriers can prevent many older adults from reaping the cognitive and social benefits of using the Internet, which is truly unfortunate, said Dr. Rafnsson.

We should be working towards a more connected society for all, said Dr. Kaiser.

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