- New research finds that older adults who use the internet have a reduced risk of dementia.
- The researchers found that those with the lowest risk used the internet between 0.5 and two hours a day.
- Doctors say the internet can help prevent social isolation, a known risk factor for dementia.
Dementia affects an estimated 5.8 million people in the United States, and unfortunately, those numbers are expected to grow. With that, it’s understandable to want to do what you can to reduce your risk of developing dementia. Now, a new study has a tip you probably haven’t thought of: Use the Internet.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Society of Geriatrics, analyzed data from 18,154 adults aged 50 to 65 who did not have dementia at the start of the study. Participants were asked this question: Do you regularly use the World Wide Web, or the Internet, to send and receive emails or for any other purpose, such as shopping, searching for information, or making travel reservations?
The researchers found that study participants who said they used the internet had about half the risk of dementia as those who didn’t go online. They then drilled further into the data, looking at how often participants used the internet (from zero to more than eight hours a day).
People who used the internet for two hours or less a day had the lowest risk of developing dementia, while those who didn’t go online at all had a significantly higher risk.
Being a heavy Internet user for longer periods in late adulthood has been associated with delayed cognitive impairment, although more evidence is needed on the potential negative effects of excessive use, the researchers concluded in the study.
But why might using the internet reduce your risk of developing dementia and what does it mean for your online habits in the future? Here’s what the experts have to say.
Why is internet use linked to a lower risk of dementia?
The study didn’t explore why internet use may reduce the risk of developing dementia, but simply found an association. But experts have a few theories as to why this link exists.
Online engagement can develop and maintain cognitive reserve, and increased cognitive reserve can, in turn, offset brain aging and reduce dementia risk, says study lead author Gawon Cho, Ph.D. New York University School of Global Public Health. However, longitudinal studies on this topic are lacking, especially those with sufficiently long follow-up periods.
Being online can help people socialize and feel less lonely, says Amit Sachdev, MD, MS, medical director in Michigan State University’s Department of Neurology. The internet helps us stay connected, she says. Healthy connections very clearly help prevent dementia.
Research has linked high levels of social interaction with a reduced risk of dementia. A six-year study of 593 people over the age of 63 found that people who had higher levels of social activities, including trying new things, socializing regularly and being active, were less likely to develop dementia than theirs. less social counterparts.
Social isolation has also been associated with an increased risk of dementia. A March 2023 study of 5,022 seniors by Johns Hopkins researchers found that those who were socially isolated had a 27 percent higher risk of developing dementia than those who were more social.
We know that cognitive engagement, learning, education, and social connection are all things you could achieve through using the Internet. We also know they protect brain health, says Scott Kaiser, MD, a geriatrician and director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.
The internet requires constant thinking, and this can help reduce the risk of dementia, emphasizes Dr. Sachdev. Preventing dementia is all about maintaining a healthy brain and using it, she says. The internet can help us use our brains in new ways every day.
Risk factors for dementia
Research into dementia is ongoing, but scientists have found some factors that may increase your risk of developing the condition. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these can include:
- Age on the rise. Dementia largely affects people aged 65 and older.
- Family history. People with parents or siblings who have dementia are at a higher risk of developing it themselves.
- Race/Ethnicity. Older black Americans are twice as likely to develop dementia as white ones. Hispanics are 1.5 times more likely to develop dementia than white people.
- Poor heart health. Conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking increase the risk of dementia if not treated properly.
- Head trauma. Head injuries, especially severe or repeated ones, increase your risk.
How to reduce the risk of dementia
There is no effective treatment that can prevent dementia, but many things can be done to reduce the risk. I spend about 30 minutes talking to patients about this, Dr. Kaiser says. In general, it’s important to maintain a healthy body and exercise your brain, says Dr. Sachdev.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) suggests you do the following:
- Check your blood pressure.
- Try to manage your blood sugar.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Eat a good mix of fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, lean meats, seafood, and unsaturated fats.
- Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week.
- Keep your mind active by reading, playing board games, or learning a new skill.
- Socialize with family and friends.
- Treat hearing problems.
- Take care of your physical and mental health.
- Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
- Do your best to prevent head injuries, such as wearing shoes with non-slip soles and a helmet while riding a bicycle.
- Reduce your alcohol intake, making sure you have no more than one drink a day (for women) and two drinks a day (for men).
- Do not use tobacco products.
And, Dr. Sachdev says, using the Internet can help, too. Healthy socializing is good when thinking about the brain, he says. Virtual or in person probably matters less than just keeping in touch with other people.
But Dr. Kaiser warns against overuse of the Internet. What are you doing on the Internet and how much does it matter, he says. This is not saying, Spend the day on the Internet. Too much can be harmful.
Heshan J. Fernando, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist for Corewell Health in Michigan, agrees. This study does not demonstrate that internet use by older adults will lead to better cognitive health, but the findings certainly encourage further exploration of internet use as a potentially modifiable lifestyle factor to reduce dementia risk. she says. Future studies are likely to explore the association between specific types of Internet content and cognitive health, something that hasn’t been achieved in the current study.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamor, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, she lives on the beach and hopes to own a tea pig and a taco truck one day.
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