Next time someone says that too much internet usage rots the mind, you may want to point them to this article that we found on the HealthDay website. In the article, reporter Cara Murez writes about a fascinating study done in the United Kingdom that appears to show how seniors who regularly spend time online are more mentally sharp than their non-digital counterparts. Apparently, internet time can actually be good for a senior’s mental acuity!
Internet Use Linked to Higher Cognitive Test Scores
Put down your sudoku and your crosswords: the internet may be the next big thing in heightened cognitive function in aging adults. In a surprising study out of the U.K., researchers found that continued use of the internet after retirement had a substantial and beneficial effect on cognitive testing, proving that seniors might be able to stay sharper well after their careers end simply by surfing the web.
The data about web and mental acuity impressed researchers, even though the precise reasons behind the apparent improvement are still unclear. But the leading theory may not be too surprising: time spent online is all about connection.
Reasons are Unclear, but Socialization Could be Key
In her article, Murez summarizes the study. “The researchers looked at the cognitive function of more than 2,100 Europeans in 2013 and 2015, some years after they had retired in 2004. Their careers had begun before computer usage was mainstream in many lines of work.”
Using data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), which collects information about older people’s health, work history, and other factors, the researchers came to the conclusion that using the internet has a profound effect on the brain after retirement.
The theories for this remarkable finding are varied, but most boil down to socialization, a vital ingredient to a healthy life after retirement—something we’ve discussed before on this blog. Vincent O’Sullivan, a lecturer at Lancaster University and one of the study’s co-authors, puts it this way: “You are connected to people through the internet, through social media, you are more engaged with people, perhaps at a time in your life where it’s hard to meet people or arrange to meet people physically.” The internet bridges those gaps.
Results More Pronounced in Women than Men
In the study, according to Munez, “retirees who used the internet could recall 1.22 more words on a 10-word cognitive test than those who did not. Among women, those who regularly used the internet could recall 2.37 more words than those who did not. Retired male internet users recalled an average of .94 words more than men who didn’t use the internet.”
O’Sullivan elaborates that the test involves a list of short one-or-two-syllable words. “On the list people start remembering the first few words because they’re coming at you quite quick. And then what you notice when you’re doing the test is after a while you sort of get overloaded, but then you probably missed some words in the second part of the test. Then you might pick up one or two words at the end of the test. And then immediately you’re asked to recall the words. And then after a few minutes, let’s say five minutes, you’re asked to recall the words again.”
While the largest segment of internet users among retirees tends to be younger men in good health with a higher education, the greatest effects of the internet on cognitive ability in the study did seem to be associated with women. Nevertheless, researchers are quick to point out that the study doesn’t prove a direct cause-and-effect link.
Virtual Connections Help Stave Off Isolation
This field of study is extremely important to the health of older adults, as a decline in cognitive ability has an enormous impact on quality of life. Older adults who are no longer able to leave the house as easily or do not see their families often can experience crippling loneliness and lack of connection. This lack of connection is one of the leading causes for a decline in mental sharpness, which has damaging effects for overall health. The COVID pandemic has underlined this issue in a massive way, with so many older adults confined to their homes, whether by choice or not.
As the HealthDay article points out, the internet is, among other things, a powerful tool for connection. Aside from enjoying the ability to communicate with friends and family, older adults can also use the internet to find events in their local area, take online classes, learn new skills, take part in virtual exercise groups, and so much more.
Dr. Sonja Rosen, chief of geriatric medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, says, “Keeping brains active is key to brain health. Playing music is one of the best ways to train your brain. Learning an instrument can enhance verbal memory and spatial reasoning, and it uses both sides of the brain, which strengthens memory power.” She also promotes exercise as a key way to cultivate a healthy brain by aiding the preventing of dementia and boosting the body’s other vital organs.
Through the internet, the ability to learn something new and engage in exercise virtually have become more available than ever before to older adults.
Internet Use is Not a Replacement for Face-to-Face Interaction
Despite all of its benefits, the internet isn’t a cure-all for loneliness. Rosen reminds us that, “There’s unique benefit to interacting with people one-on-one. So, this is in no way a suggestion that virtual interactions replace face-to-face interactions because they don’t, but they definitely help connect us, especially if there’s some type of active program that we’re involved with virtually, which involves some type of communication back and forth.”
What this study proves is that there’s really no excuse to stay disconnected in our modern world. Loneliness can have terrible effects on the brain, but it is curable, and the internet is one of many tools we can use to combat decline and live longer, fuller, happier lives.
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(originally reported at https://consumer.healthday.com)