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Scientists discover a strange connection between internet use and dementia

[Sept. 8, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]


In the rapidly evolving digital era, questions surrounding the health effects of internet use continue to surface. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


In the rapidly evolving digital era, questions surrounding the health effects of internet use continue to surface. A recent study throws light on an unexpected dimension of this debate: can internet usage patterns influence dementia risk among older adults?


In an era where older adults are often humorously criticized for their quirky Facebook posts, science has a refreshing revelation.


 
 

The Study and its Origins


Published in the esteemed Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the research was conducted by a team from NYU's School of Global Public Health. The authors delved into the topic, spurred by the noticeable lack of comprehensive studies on the "long-term cognitive impact of internet usage among older adults." Much of the existing research has been slanted towards the negative impacts, largely overlooking potential benefits.


Over a 17-year period, the team closely followed the healthcare trajectories of dementia-free adults aged between 50 and 65. The dataset used was the University of Michigan's Health and Retirement Study, a comprehensive longitudinal survey encompassing the data of about 20,000 older American adults.


 

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From 2002 to 2018, every two years, participants were asked about their internet usage habits. Specifically, they were questioned if they "regularly" used the internet and the extent of its use.


The feedback was diverse, with 65 percent identifying as regular users. Moreover, 21 percent reported a significant shift in their online habits during their participation in the study. Regrettably, some participants either passed away or developed dementia during the study.


 
 

The results were eye-opening. Participants who were active internet users had a mere 1.54 percent risk of developing dementia. In contrast, non-users faced a staggering 10.45 percent risk. The time frame over which participants developed dementia was also considered, revealing that regular internet users had half the likelihood of encountering the cognitive disorder compared to those who didn't use the internet.


Cummulative incidence of dementia by baseline internet useage, HRS, US. (CREDIT: American Geriatrics Society)


However, like most things in life, moderation appears to be key. There seemed to be a correlation between excessive internet use (more than two hours daily) and heightened dementia risk.


 
 

Expert Opinions


Gawon Cho, associated with NYU during the research stated, "Among older adults, regular internet users may experience a lower risk of dementia compared to non‐regular users. Longer periods of regular internet usage in late adulthood may help reduce subsequent dementia incidence. Nonetheless, using the internet excessively daily may negatively affect the risk of dementia in older adults."


The models accounted for all the baseline and outcome-related characteristics shown in Table 1. b IPTW models accounted for all the baseline variables. They did not adjust for post-treatment variables including imputation status and proxy-report status. c The risk of dementia associated with more than 8 hours of usage could not be estimated because the group included a small number of people without dementia incidence within the study period. d Instead of baseline cognitive performance, these models accounted for cognitive performance in 2012, the closest preceding cognitive assessment before the HRS asked about the hours of usage in 2013. It also controlled for baseline income using a continuous variable due to very small sample sizes of some income categories. (CREDIT: American Geriatrics Society)


Claire Sexton of the Alzheimer's Association, while not directly involved in the study, offered a nuanced perspective on Medscape. She mused, "It may be that regular internet usage is linked with increased cognitive stimulation, which in turn reduces dementia risk. Alternatively, individuals inherently at a lower dementia risk might naturally gravitate towards regular internet usage."


 
 

The Complexity of Correlation and Causation


Understanding the difference between correlation and causation remains a key challenge. The observed relationship might be more intricate than a simple cause-and-effect scenario.


While the internet's role in our cognitive health is still a nascent field of study, the early results underscore the importance of balanced digital engagement as we age. (CREDIT: Getty Images)


Sexton emphasized the need for more rigorous research to truly understand this potential correlation and, more importantly, to determine the causative factors. As the scientific community delves deeper, this preliminary evidence does hint at an intriguing possibility: moderate screen time might not be the villain we've made it out to be, especially as we grow older.


 
 

In an age where digital connection is increasingly integral to our daily lives, such findings offer both reassurance and guidance. While the internet's role in our cognitive health is still a nascent field of study, the early results underscore the importance of balanced digital engagement as we age.






For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


 

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


 
 

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