Internet use by seniors on regular basis could slash their dementia risk, study suggests

·6 min read
Internet use by seniors on regular basis could slash their dementia risk, study suggests

For older adults, finding the sweet spot in terms of screen time could help reduce their risk of dementia, a recent study from the School of Global Public Health at New York University found.

Among adults aged 50 to 64.9, regular internet users may experience a lower risk of dementia compared to non‐regular users, researchers discovered.

"We found that regular users experienced approximately half the risk of dementia than non-regular users," noted lead author Gawon Cho, a PhD candidate from the School of Global Public Health at NYU.

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More extended periods of regular internet usage in late adulthood were also found to help reduce the risks of subsequent dementia incidence.

"This finding on the period of use is important because it suggests that changes in internet usage in old age matter in cognitive health, although some may contend old age is too late to intervene," Cho told Fox News Digital.

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Seniors using internet
Researchers discovered that among adults aged 50 to 64.9, regular internet users may experience a lower risk of dementia compared to non‐regular users. However, excessive use comes with risks.

It appears, however, that too much internet usage can have the opposite effect.

"While regular usage may be helpful, it should be noted that we also found using the internet excessively to be associated with an increased risk of dementia in older adults," Cho explained.

To calculate these findings, researchers analyzed 17 years of data for 18,154 dementia-free adults between 50 and 64.9 years old, comparing the rate of dementia development to the baseline internet usage.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, was performed between September 2021 and November 2022.

"Without a cure for dementia, prevention and risk reduction are important, which motivated us to study this topic," Cho said.

Dr. Sandi Petersen, senior VP of health and wellness at Pegasus Senior Living in Dallas, Texas, is a gerontologist who leads health care services for Pegasus.

She was not surprised to find that regular internet usage might reduce dementia risk, as it encourages cognitive engagement and fosters communication and learning.

Brain neurons
"We know from the principles of neuroplasticity that if we challenge the brain, we can keep neural pathways healthy and stronger for longer," a gerontologist told Fox News Digital.

"We know from the principles of neuroplasticity that if we challenge the brain, we can keep neural pathways healthy and stronger for longer — even in the presence of neurocognitive disorders like dementia," she told Fox News Digital.

The use of the internet requires not only "brain power," but also physical dexterity, she pointed out, as seniors must navigate the use of a keyboard and mouse or touchscreen.

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"Combining mental challenges with small motor movement on bilateral sides of the body increases the efficacy of neural pathways," said Petersen. "The old adage of ‘use it or lose it’ is true to some extent."

Engaging online can have social and emotional benefits as well, which is especially important for seniors who might be lonely and have limited mobility due to age or illness.

"Engagement with information and other people plays a large part in combating the isolation that many older adults experience as they age," Petersen explained.

"The computer allows for engagement with loved ones through video chats, for example, even if the older person is mobility-impaired."

In a 2020 study by Dr. Gary Small of Los Angeles, 24 adults were monitored as they used the internet.

The more experienced web users showed twice as much activity in the areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning compared to those who were new to the internet.

The study’s findings support the idea that online engagement can develop and maintain "cognitive reserve," which can compensate for brain aging and reduce the risk of dementia, Cho said.

"People who do not use the internet regularly may try to do so as a cognitive exercise, just like they would engage in other suggested activities to improve cognitive health, such as learning a new technique, playing a new game or reading a new book," he said.

Seniors at computer lab
Engaging online can have social and emotional benefits as well, which is especially important for seniors who might be lonely and have limited mobility due to age or illness.

The results won’t appear right away, said Dr. James Pratty, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California Riverside School of Medicine.

"The changes are not an overnight process, nor are they going to be seen in two or three months," he told Fox News Digital.

"It requires a daily commitment to bring about what could be significant cognitive changes and protection of the brain, especially at a time when we are all living longer."

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To avoid any sleep interruptions, Petersen recommends that seniors do most of their internet engagement during the day.

"While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night — which is emitted from computers, tablets and smartphones — does so more powerfully," she told Fox News Digital.

"So, especially for older adults who may have sleep issues, limiting nighttime internet use may be important."

Sitting too long is another potential hazard of too much internet use, Peterson noted.

During computer sessions, she recommends that seniors stand up and move around every hour or two to give their brains and bodies a break.

The study did have a small sample size, Petersen noted — "and, certainly, one study does not mean that this is rock-solid evidence for practice."

Cho also said the findings "are not strictly causal."

Seniors using tablet
To avoid any sleep interruptions, a doctor recommends that seniors do most of their internet engagement during the day.

The study does show, however, that people who regularly used the internet had approximately half the risk of dementia than non-regular users after adjusting for various risk factors and the probability of using the internet regularly.

"The principles make sense and underscore what we have always known: People need to remain engaged in life, whatever that looks like for them," Petersen said.

"The internet is certainly one of many ways to foster engagement and connection for older adults."

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Based on the benefits — both cognitively and socially — Petersen recommends the internet as a tool for seniors, especially for those who cannot connect in other ways.

Looking ahead, Cho noted the need for more research in this area — particularly into "effective ways to utilize online engagement to increase the cognitively healthy lifespan among older adults, while being mindful of the potential side effects of excessive usage," he said.