Scientists investigated whether internet use is linked with the likelihood of developing dementia — and found, interestingly, that moderate and regular internet use seems to be cognitively helpful to older folks, even if their Facebook posts might sometimes suggest otherwise.
Published in the August edition of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the paper's authors at NYU's School of Global Public Health, were inspired by the dearth of research on the "long-term cognitive impact of internet usage among older adults," especially with most of what is out there focusing on the negative impacts of internet use rather than potential positives.
The researchers followed the healthcare outcomes of dementia-free adults between the ages of 50 and 65 for up to 17 years using the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal survey that contains information about 20,000 older American adults.
Every two years between 2002 and 2018, the Michigan study's coordinators asked participants if they "regularly" used the internet and, if so, how much they used it. The answers varied, but 65 percent said they were regular users and 21 percent saw their habits change significantly over their participation period. Unfortunately, some participants either died or developed dementia during the period as well.
Of those participants who were active users, the new study's authors found that there was a 1.54 percent risk of developing dementia, whereas non-users seemed to have a whopping 10.45 percent risk. Measuring the amount of time it took for the survey's participants to develop dementia, the AGS study found that regular internet users were just half as likely to develop the cognitive disorder than their non-using counterparts.
An important caveat, though, was that there did seem to also be a correlation between using the internet too much and developing dementia as well, with the risk seeming to increase in those who used it for more than two hours per day.
"Among older adults, regular internet users may experience a lower risk of dementia compared to non‐regular users, and longer periods of regular internet usage in late adulthood may help reduce the risks of subsequent dementia incidence," Gawon Cho, then at NYU, told Medscape Medical News earlier this year of the study's findings. "Nonetheless, using the internet excessively daily may negatively affect the risk of dementia in older adults."
As with many other studies, of course, there's always the chance that the relationship between correlation and causation is more complex than it appears.
"It may be that regular internet usage is associated with increased cognitive stimulation, and in turn reduced risk of dementia," Claire Sexton of the Alzheimer's Association, who was not involved in the research, told Medscape, "or it may be that individuals with lower risk of dementia are more likely to engage in regular internet usage."
To clarify that causation issue — and to better understand this link in the first place — Sexton said that there needs to be further research. But in the meantime, this new piece of evidence shows that maybe a little screen time isn't the worst thing in the world as you age.
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