Many of us are struggling to limit “screen time” these days in order to spend less time online. But can using the internet be good for older adults’ cognitive health?

In a study of older adults from 14 European countries, researchers investigated how using the internet influences cognitive functioning. As a measure of general online activity, participants were asked if they had used the internet in the past week.

This was then compared with participants’ performance on a series of tests of cognitive functioning. But it was important to figure out the direction of this relationship—does using the internet lead to better cognitive health, or does better cognitive health make older adults more likely to use the internet? To answer this question, the researchers had participants complete these measures in 2013 and again in 2015. The average age of the 29,576 study participants was 66 at the start of the study.

At both time points, higher cognitive functioning was associated with having used the internet at least on a weekly basis. But more importantly, internet use in 2013 was associated with higher cognitive functioning in 2015, suggesting that using the internet at least weekly is beneficial for cognitive health in older adults. While cognitive function did influence internet use to some extent over time, this association was much stronger in the opposite direction.

The digital divide among older adults was also apparent; less-educated older adults and the oldest adults were less likely to use the internet at both time points, and older women were less likely to use the internet in 2013 only.

The internet offers a wealth of information and resources, and, considering these findings, older adults who take advantage of this resource are likely to benefit. An alternative explanation could be that merely using the internet has a minimal effect on cognition, while other behaviors such as keeping up with technology, strengthening social connections, or learning new things have a stronger effect. This study could have benefited from a more detailed understanding of how participants used the internet, but the results are interesting nonetheless.



The above InvestigAge newsletter article was written by Dugan O’Connor for the Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging.

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