Start surfing the Web, folks—the internet is modern medicine at its most surprising.
We’ve seen studies where painting and doing art can slow a decline in our cognitive skills and now a study says being on the internet can have the same effect.
A study drawn from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing following more than 6,400 people between the ages of 50 and 89 during the last eight years shows that digital literacy helps improve memory. The study, which was published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Medical Sciences, is the first major one to show that digital literacy, or the ability to engage, plan and execute digital actions such as Web browsing and exchanging emails can improve memory, according to Andre Junqueira Xavier, a professor of the health academic unit at the Universidade do Sul de Santa Catarina in Brazil, one of the researchers who led the study. That’s important because cognitive decline is a major risk factor for disability, dementia and death.
The data measures recall from a ten-word-list across five separate points in time, Xavier says. Higher wealth, education and digital literacy improved the delayed recall. Those with functional impairment, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, depressive symptoms or no digital literacy showed declines, he says.
The researchers’ findings suggest “digital literacy increases brain and cognitive reserve or leads to the employment of more efficient cognitive networks to delay cognitive decline.” In countries where steps are made to improve digital literacy among those 50 and older, they can expect lower rates of dementia over the coming decades, Xavier says.
“This finding is important because it can be a public health policy to prevent new cases of dementia,” Xavier tells Complete Senior. “People should not stop discovering new interests and activities and keep learning and participate in society. Computers and the internet can both create new connections in your brain and make any work or task easier to accomplish.”
Xavier says besides connecting with the internet, he encourages people to do a lot of physical activity and do whatever is good for your heart because that’s good for your brain as well. Also, he says it’s important to avoid social isolation and depression because if it goes untreated it can be destructive for people’s cognitive abilities as well.
In addition to digital literacy, socioeconomic variables, including wealth and education, comorbidities and baseline cognitive function were included in models, Xavier says. Digital literacy, however, can be an economic equalizer, he says.
“Digital literacy has the effect of compensating income and social inequalities because of the huge access to this intellectual wealth,” Xavier says. “It can help to make a more fair society in the future.”
Cognitive decline often begins in individuals aged between 45 and 60 years, Xavier says. Other studies have reported several risk factors for the incidence of cognitive decline, including social and demographic factors, diseases such as hypertension, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, genes, functional capacity and nutrition, he says.
The study cites how over the last decade in the United Kingdom, there has been a large increase in computer and internet usage among older groups. It says 56 percent of those between 65 and 74 have internet access. Of the 6.4 million people in the UK who have never used the internet, 74 percent are 65 and older with half of those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.