Study Links Internet Use with Lower Dementia Risk

Young people rely on a strong internet connection to conduct almost every aspect of their lives, including learning, work, shopping, entertainment and often socializing.  Although in-person social interaction is irreplaceable in creating a sense of connection, value and belonging, new research shows that older adults could benefit from regular internet use, reducing their risk of developing dementia and improving cognitive performance. 

According to a recent USA Today report, a new long-term University of Michigan study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that seniors who regularly used the internet had about half the risk of developing dementia compared with older adults who didn’t regularly go online.  Researchers used data from 18,000 older adults, enrolled in the Health and Retirement Study, aged 50 to 64.9 who did not have dementia at the start of the eight-year study.   

Earlier research has found similar results, with older regular internet users demonstrating better cognitive performance, verbal reasoning and memory.  Further research is needed to determine how internet use, and which specific types of use, affect cognitive function among older adults.  The research is important as evidence that certain modifiable lifestyle factors could significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia in older age. 

Dementia, a condition that includes loss of memory and cognitive function, affects more than 6 million Americans over the age of 65 who have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia.   The American Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 1 in 9 seniors over 65 have the disease.  As the elderly population swells with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, the number of seniors with Alzheimer’s is expected to rise to 12 million by 2050. 

Although using the internet for an hour or less a day was shown to lower the risk for dementia, study participants who went online for 6 to 8 hours each day had the highest risk among regular internet users for dementia.  More research is needed to determine if excess internet use could be harmful to older adults’ cognitive health, increasing isolation and limiting opportunities for face-to-face social interaction. Researchers also note that although regular internet use may boost cognitive stimulation that reduces the risk for dementia, older adults who already have a lower risk for dementia may be more likely to use the internet frequently.