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 getting them online may help their brain health, too.
The researchers saw this association after about eight years tracking 18,154 adults between the ages of 50 and 65 who did not have dementia when the study period began.
The adults were a part of the Health and Retirement Study, a multidisciplinary collection of data from a representative sample of people in the US that is gathered by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration.
Each of the participants was asked a simple question: “Do you regularly use the World Wide Web, or the Internet, for sending and receiving e-mail or for any other purpose, such as making purchases, searching for information, or making travel reservations?”
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 not at all to more than eight hours a day. Those who used the internet for about two hours or less a day had the lowest risk of dementia compared with those that didn’t use the internet, who had a “notably higher estimated risk.”
The researchers noted that people who were online six to eight hours a day had a higher risk of dementia, but that finding wasn’t statistically significant, they said, and more research is needed.
Scientists still don’t know what causes dementia, so the new research can’t pinpoint the exact connection between internet usage and brain health. Study co-author Dr. Virginia W. Chang has a few ideas.
“Online engagement may help to develop and maintain cognitive reserve, which can in turn compensate for brain aging and reduce the risk of dementia,” said Chang, an associate professor of global public health at New York University’s School of Global Public Health.
The study also did not look at what people were exploring 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 may help prevent dementia. A 2020 study found an association between cognitively stimulating jobs and a lower risk of dementia, for example.
As people age, it’s natural for brain processing speeds to slow a little, and it may get harder to remember what’s on all those open browser tabs on your computer. But in a healthy brain, routine memory and knowledge remains pretty stable. People with dementia have trouble with routine brain functions like making new memories, solving problems and completing normal tasks.
About 6.2 million people 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. That number is expected to grow exponentially as baby boomers age.
“Overall, this is important research. It identifies another potentially modifiable factor that might influence dementia risk,” said Dr. Claire Sexton, the Alzheimer’s Association’s senior director of scientific programs and outreach, who 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 medications, experts have been looking 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 pinpoint exactly what lifestyle interventions may lower a person’s risk of dementia.
Risk factors like family history and age can’t be changed, but scientists think there are some healthy behaviors that can reduce the risk of this kind of cognitive decline.
Lifestyle factors like exercise, getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping blood pressure in check, managing blood sugar, quitting smoking and staying engaged with others may help. Internet surfing isn’t one of the official activities 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 the use of the internet may help reduce cognitive decline. One 2020 study found only a smaller cognitive decline in male internet users. Others have not seen a 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, level of education, or race or ethnicity.
Research also suggests that most older adults most frequently use the internet for basic tasks like email, news or online banking. But a growing number are learning newer social platforms like BeReal or dancing and singing on TikTok. And learning new skills may be protective against dementia, studies suggest.
Older adults’ use of social networking sites can also increase their connections to other people and reduce isolation. Some studies have shown that older people who were lonely were three times more likely to develop dementia than those who said they felt socially connected to others.
“We need further evidence, not just from observational studies like this one but also interventional studies,” Sexton said. That way, doctors might someday treat people for dementia like they do with heart disease: by suggesting lifestyle changes in addition to medication.