(CNN) If your parents or grandparents ask you how to post on Instagram or how to send a birthday message to a Facebook friend, a new study suggests you might want to help them – not just to be nice but because posting them can help their brain health too.
A study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggested that older adults who regularly used the Internet were less likely to develop dementia.
The researchers found this association after about eight years of follow-up of 18,154 adults between the ages of 50 and 65 who did not have dementia at the start of the study period.
The adults were part of the Health and Retirement Study, a multidisciplinary collection of data from a representative sample of people in the United States that is collected by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration.
A simple question was posed to each of the participants: “Do you regularly use the World Wide Web, or the Internet, to send and receive e-mail or for any other purpose, such as making purchases, researching information or making reservations? of travel ? ?”
People who used the internet at the start of the study had about half the risk of dementia as people who were not regular users.
The researchers also looked at how often these adults were online, from none at all to more than eight hours a day. Those who used the internet for around two hours or less per day had the lowest risk of dementia compared to those who did not use the internet, who had a “significantly higher estimated risk”.
The researchers noted that people who were online six to eight hours a day had a higher risk of dementia, but this finding was not statistically significant, they said, and more research is needed.
Scientists still don’t know what causes dementia, so the new research can’t determine the exact link between internet use and brain health. Study co-author Dr. Virginia W. Chang has some ideas.
“Online engagement can help build and maintain cognitive reserve, which in turn can offset brain aging and reduce dementia risk,” said Chang, associate professor of global public health at the School of Global Public. Health from New York University.
The study also didn’t look at what people explored online. Although the internet is full of cat videos and conspiracy theories, it can also be intellectually stimulating, and some studies have shown that intellectual stimulation can help prevent dementia. A 2020 study found an association between cognitively challenging jobs and a lower risk of dementia, for example.
As people get older, it’s natural for the brain’s processing speed to slow down a bit, and it can get harder to remember what’s on all those open browser tabs on your computer. But in a healthy brain, memory and routine knowledge remain fairly stable. People with dementia have problems with routine brain functions like creating new memories, solving problems, and performing normal tasks.
About 6.2 million people age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number is expected to grow exponentially as baby boomers age.
“Overall, this is important research. It identifies another potentially modifiable factor that may influence dementia risk,” said Dr. Claire Sexton, Senior Director of Science Programs and Outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association, which was not involved in the new study. “But we wouldn’t want to read too much into this study in isolation. It doesn’t establish cause and effect.”
Beyond drugs, experts have looked for ways to help people keep dementia at bay.
The Alzheimer’s Association is working on the US Pointer Study, a two-year clinical trial to determine exactly which lifestyle interventions can reduce a person’s risk of dementia.
Risk factors such as family history and age cannot be changed, but scientists believe certain healthy behaviors may reduce the risk of this type of cognitive decline.
Lifestyle factors like exercise, getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, controlling blood pressure, managing blood sugar, quitting smoking, and staying engaged with others can help. Internet browsing is not an official activity listed by the CDC, but the new study adds to the growing body of evidence that suggests more research could better establish this connection.
The new research isn’t the first to find that using the internet can help reduce cognitive decline. A 2020 study found only milder cognitive decline among male internet users. Others saw no gender difference.
In the latest study, the difference in risk between regular users and those who did not use the Internet regularly did not vary by gender, education level, race or ethnicity.
Some studies have also shown the benefit of training older people in computer skills and have suggested that the Internet can positively connect them to others and help them learn information or skills.
Research also suggests that most seniors use the Internet most often for basic tasks like email, news or online banking. But a growing number are learning new social platforms like BeReal or dancing and singing on TikTok. And learning new skills may protect against dementia, studies show.
Seniors’ use of social networking sites can also increase their connection to other people and reduce their isolation. Some studies have shown that older people who felt lonely were three times more likely to develop dementia than those who said they felt socially connected to others.
“We need more evidence, not just from observational studies like this, but also from interventional studies,” Sexton said. That way, doctors could one day treat people with dementia like they do heart disease: by suggesting lifestyle changes in addition to medication.