Web surfing can help protect your brain health

Internet Surfing: Good for Memory?

Internet Surfing: Good for Memory?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

As we get older, "senior moments" seem to be more common—whether that is due to normal aging, or perhaps something more impactful and life-changing like cognitive decline. But what if you could help minimize those memory lapses simply by web surfing?

A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society has found that regular internet use may reduce the risk of dementia among older adults. This long-term study followed approximately 18,000 dementia-free participants, analyzing data based on each participant's overall internet use over a median period of 7.9 years.

The researchers found a U-shaped curve when it comes to internet use and dementia risk, with those who engaged in 0 hours of internet use and those who spent 6 or more hours online being more at risk for developing dementia. They concluded that spending anywhere between 0.5-2 hours online per day is the "sweet spot" for regular internet users—a number that cuts the risk of developing dementia by about half.

This research is crucial in understanding the positive impacts of online presence in older populations particularly when it comes to cognitive decline and finding ways to facilitate internet access within older adult populations.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a form of age-related cognitive decline that affects millions of people each year. While it generally is associated with aging populations, dementia is not a normal part of aging. It's a debilitating condition that, at its worst, is characterized by the near-total loss of cognitive function—including thought processing, recall and reasoning—to the point where it impacts daily life and activities.

Dementia develops when healthy nerve cells stop functioning as they should and lose connections with other brain cells and die. Several million people are impacted by this disease, with an estimated 14 million projected to be affected by 2060.

Some common signs and symptoms of this disease include:

  • Memory loss and confusion
  • Difficulty speaking, understanding and communicating thoughts, reading and writing
  • Getting lost in familiar places
  • Repeating questions
  • Difficulty with decision making
  • Experiencing paranoia or delusions
  • Impulsivity
  • Difficulty with balance and movement

Although there are several types of dementia, including frontotemporal, Lewy body and vascular dementia, the most commonly diagnosed form is Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's accounts for between 60-80% of all dementia cases.

What is the connection between internet usage and dementia?

It's probably not a surprise to learn that there are some good things that come out of seniors spending time online. For one thing, regular internet usage is a great way for adults to stay socially engaged—something that can become difficult after retirement, when there's no longer water cooler talk to look forward to, and when longtime friends move away to be closer to grandchildren or to find "empty nester" housing. Web surfing also provides an excellent means of keeping on top of current events or learning something new.

What the study revealed that is newsworthy is that simply staying engaged in the occasional web surf each day can help protect the health of your brain and minimize the risk of developing dementia.

The study included both non-regular (infrequent) and regular internet users (if they were, they recorded their daily hours of usage). The subjects were asked about their internet usage, with cognitive tests and performance follow-up every two years. Internet usage included many different types of online engagement, including social media, email, shopping online, and accessing the latest news. Notably, it didn't include watching/streaming TV or movies. Baseline regular internet users were found to have a lower prospective risk of developing dementia by the end of the study period, with the risk being slashed by approximately half if they spent a certain amount of time online.

This is good news for those test subjects who already consider themselves regular internet users (about 65% of the participants), and perhaps a good motivator for non-regular users (accounting for the other 35%) to get online more often. And best of all, you don't have to have a prolific web presence to reap all of the benefits of moderate internet use—just try to hit the research-backed 30 minutes to two hours per day.

Better yet, even though the study was mainly focused on dementia, the researchers also found that being a regular user of the internet for longer periods of time in late adulthood was associated with delayed cognitive impairment in general—continuing to make the case for adding a daily catch-up on Facebook to your routine.

How much time should you spend on the internet?

As the study found, you don't have to be perpetually online to score the big benefits of regular online engagement. As the authors noted, internet usage had positive impacts only up to a certain point. Those participants who limited their online engagement to between 30 minutes and two hours experienced the most positive effects when it came to protecting their memory and cognitive health.

But the true magic number will likely differ between each person and how exactly they use the internet recreationally, including those who spend the majority of their workday on a screen. For some, several hours on the internet can elicit positive feelings, but for others, the doom scroll can turn into a doom spiral. Focus on using the internet as a tool for certain things you can't access elsewhere and as a means of staying engaged, especially if you use it socially, rather than letting it overtake all of your free time.

What happens when you spend too much time on the internet?

Be careful what you wish for when it comes to web surfing! Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. While there are many positive impacts of the internet, including certain apps and programs that are helpful for memory and cognition, overuse of the internet can be a double-edged sword. As the results of the study concluded, the internet users who spent over 2 hours online actually increased their risk of dementia by between 1.3 and 2-fold compared to those that stayed in the optimal range of their daily web surf.

Not only that, but too much time on the internet can contribute to other health concerns—for both your physical and your mental health. Being too actively engaged online can adversely impact parts of your lifestyle. Sitting online too long can make you more sedentary, which can lead to a host of other health problems, including speeding up cognitive decline. Extensive screen time can also disrupt your sleep—an essential part of maintaining optimal brain health.

And don't forget the dreaded doom scroll! The internet is vast and oftentimes is full of irrelevant information and oversaturated with negative images and news. This can contribute to mental health implications, including lower self-worth and negative feelings associated with getting older—which can in turn contribute to feelings of anxiety or depression.

What other activities can help keep your brain active?

Though the internet is a great tool in many ways, don't forget that there are other ways to keep your brain functioning optimally that don't rely on surfing the web or scrolling through social media. Dementia has a variety of risk factors but there are several different healthy lifestyle choices to help keep your brain active and fight cognitive decline. These include:

  • Prioritizing regular physical activity and exercise.
  • Eating a healthy diet—Did you know that the Mediterranean diet is particularly helpful for fighting dementia?
  • Getting consistent and high-quality sleep—Learning and memories are consolidated during sleep and sleep also gives your brain time to rest and rejuvenate.
  • Staying mentally active—Reading, writing, doing crossword and jigsaw puzzles, playing board games (like chess) or card games, even learning a new language or skill.
  • Being social—We already know social connections help you live longer, but they also help keep your brain young! Having a strong support network not only helps fight feelings of loneliness, but social activities are also key for engaging in several mental processes like attention and memory—with frequent engagement helping to strengthen neural networks and fight age-related cognitive decline.



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