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Regular internet surfing may be beneficial to brain health among older adults, a study finds. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Regular use of the internet by older people is associated with a significant reduction in the risk of developing dementia, according to a recent study.
  • The study also found a “sweet spot” for internet use of up to 2 hours a day, beyond which the risk of developing dementia is likely to increase.
  • According to experts, support should be offered to older people to use new online technology and tackle barriers to access.

A new study explores the effect of internet use among older people as a means of preventing dementia.

The study finds that older individuals who regularly use the internet are nearly half as likely to develop dementia as those who do not regularly use the internet.

For an average of 7.9 years — and for up to 17.1 years — the authors of the study tracked the cognitive health of 18,154 adults who did not have dementia. The people in the study were 50 to 64.9 years old at the start of the study.

Regular internet users had a 43% reduced risk of developing dementia compared with non-regular users. By the end of the study, 4.68% of the individuals had been diagnosed with dementia.

The study also suggested that the beneficial effects of internet use depended on the degree to which people were online, presenting a U-curve of the data.

The findings suggest people whose daily internet use was between 0.1 and 2 hours showed the greatest reduction in risk of dementia.

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Those who never went online or were there more than two hours remained at a higher risk of dementia. However, the authors caution that small sample sizes prevented the observation of significant differences between user groups.

The authors of the study also looked at whether educational attainment, race-ethnicity, sex, and generation impacted the association between internet use and dementia risk. They found the risk of dementia did not vary based on these factors.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

According to Dr. Scott Kaiser, a specialist in geriatric family medicine at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, not involved in this study, “there was sort of a sweet spot that if you were on the internet for a half hour to 2 hours a day, it was protective against dementia.”

“Too much internet time was not protective, or potentially harming,” he pointed out.

Dr. Kaiser is co-founder of Determined Health, an organization dedicated to helping older people strengthen their social bonds.

With too much internet use, Dr. Kaiser noted that if older people are “doom-scrolling,” or compulsively scrolling through social media feeds laden with bad news, they may be “highly exposed to negative images of aging, and feeling lower self-worth, and feeling bad about getting older […] — that would be an example where [too much time] could potentially have a negative effect.”

Too much time spent on the internet may also promote an unhealthy, more sedentary lifestyle.

The study did not capture exactly what its subjects were doing online, which could affect the study’s conclusions.

Dr. Snorri Bjorn Rafnsson, Ph.D. of the University of West London in the United Kingdom, who was also not involved in the research, told Medical News Today that “these particular results merit further investigation.”

“What are the reasons some older adults might be spending excessive amounts of time online? Are they lonely? Socially isolated? What other potential cognitive/physical risks might they have? On the other hand, what is going on among those who don’t use the internet at all? I think these are questions that could be explored further in future studies.”

– Dr. Snorri Bjorn Rafnsson

According to Dr. Kaiser, “we know that learning new things, staying cognitively engaged is critical for protecting our brains and reducing our dementia risk.”

“We might say that using the internet in later life might have direct cognitive benefits because learning and using new technology might stimulate the brain and thus positively impact people’s cognitive function,” said Dr. Rafnsson.

Dr. Rafnsson noted that older adults could use the internet for general information searching or for information relating to their health. The advent of telemedicine presents another reason for older people to spend time online.

Regular internet use may also deliver beneficial social interaction with others. The U.S. Surgeon General, in an advisory entitled “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation,” describes the importance of feeling connected to others.

In general, participation in internet activities may promote a positive view of getting older, and this can deliver health benefits. Dr. Kaiser cited the work of Dr. Becca Levy, author of Breaking The Age Code.

He described it as an “amazing work of where we know that our perceptions of aging actually impact how we age in terms of our longevity, our dementia risk, just the very way we think about aging.”

Dr. Kaiser suggested three pathways by which negative age beliefs can affect the risk of dementia and aging:

  • Having a negative outlook is known to be harmful to health
  • Mistreating one’s body like an old car that is not expected to be on the road much longer is a recipe for bad health
  • High cortisol levels from stress, as well as systemic inflammation.

Dr. Rafnsson proposed that “older adults should be supported to learn and use new online technology for whatever purpose they wish.”

“There are many older people who still face various barriers,” he explained, “including lack of technical skills, cost, lack of social support, etc.”

“These barriers may prevent many older adults from reaping the cognitive and social benefits of using the internet, which is really unfortunate,” said Dr. Rafnsson.

“We should be working towards a more connected society for all,” asserted Dr. Kaiser.