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Surf the Web? It May Be Good for Your Brain

New study finds lower risk of developing dementia among regular internet users

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Whether it’s to email a friend or shop online, older adults who routinely use the internet may be reaping brain health benefits, new research suggests.

study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that regular internet usage by adults ages 50 to 65 was associated with approximately half the risk of developing dementia compared with those who did not go online.

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“Online engagement may help to develop and maintain cognitive reserve, which can in turn compensate for brain aging and reduce the risk of dementia,” corresponding author Virginia W. Chang, M.D., an associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, said in a news release.

Keeping the mind active is one of six pillars for brain health established by AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health.

The study details

Earlier research pointed to a potential brain health benefit for older adults who use the internet, but it did not focus much on long-term cognitive benefits. Chang and her colleagues designed their study to look deeper.

Using data collected as part of the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study (HRS), they focused on 18,154 adults ages 50 to 65 who did not have dementia when the study period began. Each had been asked if they regularly used the internet for sending and receiving email or for any other purpose. Roughly two-thirds of participants used the internet, and a third did not. They were followed for an average of nearly eight years.

Follow-up surveys conducted by telephone or in person every two years included the same question. About 20 percent of participants showed changes in internet usage over the course of the study period. Participants were tested for dementia and scored based on a common cognitive assessment. The overall rate of incident dementia during the study period was 4.68 percent.

A small subset of the group was asked in 2013 to say how much time they spent in the previous week on the internet. They were given six options, ranging from zero to eight or more hours. The study found that adults with two hours or less of usage appeared to experience the lowest risk of developing dementia. Adults with no usage had a notably higher estimated risk of dementia. Similarly, adults who were online eight or more hours were at higher risk of developing dementia. The results should be taken with a grain of salt since the sample size was small.

The researchers said they found the risk between regular and nonregular users did not vary by educational attainment, race-ethnicity, sex or generation.

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The takeaway

Chang and her colleagues noted that they analyzed whether adults changed their internet habits over the course of the study. They found that those who picked up the internet after the study began were linked with a reduced dementia risk.

The study’s authors say the findings suggest that “changes in internet usage in late adulthood may modulate subsequent cognitive health.” They noted that more research is needed to “clarify how long a person needs to be a regular user during late adulthood to experience the cognitive benefits [of] online engagement.”

They also said more research is needed to determine whether “excessive online engagement may have adverse cognitive effects on older adults” as their preliminary findings suggest.

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