- A new study found that daily internet usage may help adults lower their risk of dementia.
- The ideal time spent online for a reduced risk of dementia was 1–2 hours per day.
- Experts recommend stimulating online activity, as well as reading, puzzles, and card games to maintain cognitive health.
New research suggests that using the internet each day may be good for your brain health, especially if you are an older adult.
This is good news considering dementia impacts an estimated 5.8 million people in the U.S. and, unfortunately, is expected to grow. By 2060, experts estimate that 14 million people will be impacted by Alzheimer’s disease alone—with minorities being the most affected.
“Several studies indicate that engaging in mentally-stimulating activities protects brain health and forestalls the onset of dementia,” Gary Small, MD, chair of psychiatry for Hackensack University Medical Center, behavioral health physician-in-chief for Hackensack Meridian Health told Health.
“People who graduate college, bilingual individuals, and socially-engaged persons all have lower risks for dementia,” he said.
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Internet Use and Reduced Dementia Risk
After tracking 18,154 adults between the ages of 50 and 65 who did not have dementia when the study period began, researchers found that older people who used the internet regularly (but not excessively), had a lower risk of dementia. In fact, people who were using the internet at the start of the study had about half the risk of dementia of those who were not regular users.
“This finding on the period of use is important because it suggests that changes in internet usage in old age matter in cognitive health—although some may contend old age is too late to intervene,” explained Gawon Cho, a researcher on the study and PhD candidate at the School of Global Public Health, New York University.
During the study, researchers looked at how often the adults were online—from not at all to more than eight hours a day. They discovered that 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.
While the exact reason that using the internet may lower dementia risk is still unclear, Cho noted that “it has been hypothesized that online engagement can develop and maintain cognitive reserve, and increased cognitive reserve can, in turn, compensate for brain aging and reduce the risk of dementia.”
In fact, Dr. Small noted that his research group used functional MRI to track neural activity while older adults searched online and found that online searches led to significant increases in neural activity throughout the cortex of the brain—areas that control memory, language skills, and reasoning. These findings suggest that searching online is a form of brain exercise that may protect neuronal health.
Consequently, cognitive function may be maintained for a longer period of time if people who do not use the internet regularly try to do so as a cognitive exercise, Cho added. “Nonetheless, older adults should be mindful that excessive internet usage [could have] potential adverse cognitive effects,” she clarified.
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What Causes Dementia?
Dementia is a cognitive impairment that often includes a loss of memory, language, problem-solving skills, and other thinking abilities that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s, which accounts for 60% to 80% of all dementia cases.
“Small strokes to the brain, depression, medication side effects, metabolic abnormalities, infections, and other medical conditions [also] can lead to cognitive impairment and sometimes cause dementia that can be reversed by treating the underlying cause,” Dr. Small explained. “Age is the greatest single risk factor for developing dementia. By age 85 or over, some studies indicate a risk for dementia of 40 percent.”
Some people may even be predisposed to developing dementia, according to Lauren Schaefer, PhD, ABPP-CN, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology at Nassau University Medical Center. “For example, they may carry the APOE4 gene, which increases one’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Families with members who have suffered early-onset dementia are also vulnerable.”
However, Schaefer said that an increased risk does not necessarily mean a person is absolutely going to develop dementia.
“Memory impairment and dementia are by no means a normal part of aging, though,” Schaefer explained. “And, some mild memory problems may not even be dementia and may be entirely treatable. If someone is concerned about their memory, they should be evaluated by a neurologist or neuropsychologist, who can determine whether there actually is a memory impairment and, if so, potential causes and possible treatments.”
How to Prevent Dementia
The internet isn’t the only way to reduce your risk of developing dementia. Engaging in regular physical activity, doing something mentally stimulating, engaging socially, and managing stress can all help prevent dementia. Even educational achievement and avoidance of head trauma are associated with a lower risk of developing dementia, Dr. Small explained.
“Combining some of these lifestyle behaviors may further benefit brain health,” Dr. Small said.
Schaefer also pointed out the importance of general health upkeep, like seeing a healthcare provider regularly and taking any prescribed medications for hypertension, high cholesterol, hypothyroidism, and more as well as getting help if you are feeling depressed.
Eating a nutritious diet of whole foods [as well as] avoiding or limiting red and processed meats, salt, sugar, and saturated fats is also important to reduce your dementia risk, she added. “Not smoking, limiting alcohol intake, and getting six to eight hours of quality sleep nightly can also reduce one’s risk.”
She also advised that people engage in mentally-stimulating activities like reading, doing puzzles, taking a class, and traveling. Staying socially active also is important for brain health and can help reduce the dementia risk. Rather than trying to add all of these things at once, though, consider combining things like a group exercise class, book club, or a regular card game, Schaefer suggested.
“Without a cure for dementia, prevention and risk reduction are important, which motivated us to study this topic,” concluded Cho. “There should be more research on effective ways to utilize online engagement to increase the cognitively healthy lifespan among older adults while being mindful of the potential side effects of excessive usage.”
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