In a stunning revelation, new research has unveiled that daily internet usage may have a profound impact on brain health, particularly for older adults. This groundbreaking finding comes as a ray of hope amidst the concerning rise of dementia cases, which currently affect around 5.8 million individuals in the United States alone, with a projected surge in the future. Experts estimate that by 2060, a staggering 14 million people will be grappling with Alzheimer’s disease, with minority communities being disproportionately affected.
According to Gary Small, MD, chair of psychiatry for Hackensack University Medical Center and behavioral health physician-in-chief for Hackensack Meridian Health, engaging in mentally-stimulating activities can safeguard brain health and delay the onset of dementia. Dr. Small emphasized, “People who graduate college, bilingual individuals, and socially-engaged persons all have lower risks for dementia.”
Delving deeper into the study, researchers monitored a group of 18,154 adults aged between 50 and 65 who were initially free from dementia. Astonishingly, the findings indicated that older individuals who utilized the internet regularly (within reasonable limits) had a significantly reduced risk of dementia. In fact, the study revealed that those who were internet users at the outset had approximately half the risk of dementia compared to non-users.
Offering insights into this phenomenon, Gawon Cho, a researcher and PhD candidate at the School of Global Public Health, New York University, highlighted the importance of changes in internet usage during old age. While some may argue that intervening at this stage is futile, Cho emphasized, “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.”
The study also assessed the frequency of internet usage among participants, ranging from complete non-usage to over eight hours per day. Remarkably, it was discovered that those who spent approximately two hours or less online per day exhibited the lowest risk of dementia when compared to non-users.
Despite the exact mechanism through which internet usage reduces dementia risk remaining unclear, Cho speculated that online engagement might contribute to the development and maintenance of cognitive reserve, thereby compensating for age-related brain decline and lowering the risk of dementia.
Dr. Small’s research group employed functional MRI to track neural activity in older adults while performing online searches. Their findings revealed substantial increases in neural activity throughout the brain’s cortex, which governs memory, language skills, and reasoning. These outcomes strongly suggest that online searching serves as a cognitive exercise that can safeguard neuronal health.
However, Cho cautioned that individuals who do not regularly use the internet should approach it as a cognitive exercise to maintain cognitive function for a longer duration. She did emphasize the need for older adults to be mindful of potential adverse cognitive effects associated with excessive internet usage.
Dementia, characterized by cognitive impairment that hampers memory, language, problem-solving skills, and other cognitive functions, severely disrupts daily life. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for the majority, around 60% to 80%, of dementia cases. Dr. Small expounded, “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.”
He further underscored that age represents the most significant risk factor for dementia, with studies indicating a 40% risk for individuals aged 85 or above. Lauren Schaefer, PhD, ABPP-CN, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology at Nassau University Medical Center, pointed out that certain individuals may possess a genetic predisposition to developing dementia, such as those carrying the APOE4 gene or families with a history of early-onset dementia. However, Schaefer clarified that an increased risk does not guarantee the development of dementia.
Schaefer emphasized that memory impairment and dementia should not be considered a normal part of aging. Mild memory problems may not necessarily indicate dementia and could be treatable. She advised individuals concerned about their memory to seek evaluation from a neurologist or neuropsychologist who can assess the presence of memory impairment, identify potential causes, and explore possible treatments.
Reducing the risk of dementia extends beyond internet usage. Regular physical activity, engaging in mentally stimulating activities, social interaction, stress management, educational achievements, and avoiding head trauma are all factors that can contribute to dementia prevention. Dr. Small emphasized that combining these lifestyle behaviors can further promote brain health.
Schaefer stressed the importance of overall health maintenance, including regular visits to healthcare providers and adherence to prescribed medications for conditions like hypertension, high cholesterol, and hypothyroidism. Additionally, she recommended following a nutritious diet consisting of whole foods while limiting the consumption of red and processed meats, salt, sugar, and saturated fats. Other beneficial practices include refraining from smoking, moderating alcohol intake, and ensuring six to eight hours of quality sleep each night.
Engaging in mentally stimulating activities such as reading, puzzles, taking classes, and traveling was also recommended by Schaefer. Staying socially active was highlighted as a vital component of brain health and dementia risk reduction. Schaefer suggested combining activities such as group exercise classes, book clubs, or regular card games to foster social engagement.
Cho concluded the study by emphasizing the significance of prevention and risk reduction in the absence of a cure for dementia. She called for further research to explore effective ways of utilizing online engagement to enhance the cognitively healthy lifespan of older adults while remaining cautious about potential side effects associated with excessive internet usage.
The study’s findings highlight the potential benefits of incorporating internet usage into daily routines, particularly for older adults, to promote brain health and reduce the risk of dementia. By embracing a holistic approach that combines various lifestyle factors, individuals can actively take steps to protect their cognitive well-being and contribute to a healthier, dementia-free future.