Internet usage is often associated with teenagers overindulging in computer games, but it may have health benefits for older users. New research shows that older internet users are more likely to take part in colorectal cancer screening projects than non-users.

Both the American Cancer Society and the UK’s NHS show that colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and that both Americans and Brits face a 1 in 20 chance of developing the disease.

They also point out that the death rate from this disease has been dropping for the past 20 years, citing screening as one of the most likely reasons.

Research published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention this month shows that English men and women aged 50 and over who are consistent internet users are twice as likely to participate in screening programs than non-users.

Data collected from 5,943 respondents to the English Longitudinal Study of Aging – a large, population-based cohort study – also showed that consistent users do not conform to the stereotypical image of computer users as couch potatoes. The study show that they are:

  • 50% more likely to take part in regular physical activity
  • 44% less likely to be a current smoker
  • 24% more likely to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.

Surprisingly though, the research did not show any association between internet use and women attending breast cancer screening.

The English Longitudinal Study of Aging collects multidisciplinary data covering health, economic position and quality of life from people aged 50.

The first data was collected in 2002 and has been followed-up in waves every 2 years until 2011. Respondents were asked about their internet and email use, any cancer screening and what, if any, regular physical exercise they did.

Of the participants, 41% reported not using the internet, 38% used the internet during waves one to three and were classed as intermittent users. Consistent users, people who reported using the internet in all five waves, accounted for just over 20%.

Christian von Wagner, PhD, from University College London and lead author of the study, says:

“We accounted for sociodemographic factors that influence internet use and various measures of physical capabilities and cognitive function that decline with age, and still found an association between internet use and cancer-preventive behaviors.”

“The interesting aspect here is a dose-response relationship between internet use and cancer preventive-behaviors: Intermittent users were more likely to have cancer-preventive behaviors than never-users, and consistent users were more likely to have cancer-preventive behaviors than intermittent users.”

Researchers noted that internet use was higher in younger, wealthier, more educated white males, compared with older, less wealthy, and nonwhite individuals with physical disabilities.

Professor von Wagner says:

It is important that policymakers recognize the role internet use plays in influencing inequalities in cancer outcomes, and help increase access to the internet among this demographic.”

Interestingly, Medical News Today reported that 1 in 3 Americans used the internet to diagnose symptoms, but disappointingly, research in December last year showed the number of Americans participating in cancer screening programs has fallen.