By Meredith Kimple
As technology evolves at a break-neck speed, we often hear cautionary reminders that we are becoming too reliant on our cellphones, tablets, and computers. While there is nothing wrong with encouraging us to detach from these objects, such warnings ultimately sell the truly helpful aspects of new technology short.
Older people may be the most resistant to these developments, and understandably. But there’s a new incentive to invest in your interactive screen of choice; recent research shows that activities like regularly using email may help protect against dementia.
The Mayo Clinic conducted a study that followed nearly 2,000 cognitively normal individuals over the age of 70 for a span of four years. Participants received neurocognitive evaluations every 15 months for the duration of the study, and were ultimately labeled either cognitively normal or mildly impaired. Researchers found that individuals who engaged in certain activities at least once or twice a week experienced less cognitive decline than those who only performed them a few times a month, if that.
What were these activities?
You might guess something like puzzles or knitting, or perhaps regular social interaction, but the activity that had the greatest bearing on participants’ cognitive health was computer use.
Those who used a computer a few times per week lowered their risk of new-onset mild cognitive impairment by roughly 30 percent; other activities, including arts and crafts, social interaction, and games, brought a 20 percent decrease. Even participants who were genetically predisposed to developing cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease saw some benefit from engaging in weekly computer use.
The results of the study corroborate earlier findings that certain mentally stimulating activities can offer a degree of protection against mild cognitive impairment. You might think that in order to take full advantage of these benefits, these activities must have been performed for many years. However, research suggests that beginning these practices at a more advanced age can still decrease one’s risk.
Another study showed a possible connection between mentally stimulating activities and a reduced risk for suffering delirium, a state of sudden confusion that the elderly sometimes experience after a major procedure. Researchers found that the 32 percent of participants who developed post-operative delirium engaged in fewer leisure activities than their counterparts who were not delirious. The activities that most reduced their risk for delirium were reading books, playing computer games, and using email. Researchers concluded that the more time older individuals invested in these leisure activities, the less likely they were to develop delirium after surgery. Because delirium can increase an older person’s risk for decline and dementia, regular engagement in mentally stimulating activities may be vital for preserving their cognitive health.
In both studies, computer use played a surprising role in lowering seniors’ risk for developing a cognitive impairment. But why might this surprise us? Reading, even when done on the computer, helps to keep our minds sharp. Using a computer requires practice and to a certain extent, keen concentration.
Yet, since the advent of in-home television, society has denounced the convenient practice of gleaning information from screens.
Though we rush to buy the newest smart phone upgrade and gladly spend hours on social media, deep down, we harbor a fragment of guilt. As a culture, we simultaneously glorify and decry the ever-changing face of technological advancement. Feelings towards the latest innovations are highly charged, and perhaps most so among the elderly population.
Our senior loved ones grew up without computers and cellphones, and depending on their age, without television. While many older people have embraced the most recent developments in technology, others are frustrated and afraid of it. Part of this may be an ornery loyalty to the traditional ways of doing things, or a belief that computers and smartphones offer nothing to their demographic. However, these dismissals may attempt to mask an inability to use the technology.
Because computer-related activities seem to have a positive effect on seniors’ “cognitive reserve”, encouraging our loved ones to jump on the bandwagon may help to preserve their mental faculties. We should do everything we can to help them feel comfortable using a computer; search for local classes geared towards senior learning, and offer to demonstrate basic applications, like email.
While computer usage is certainly not the only mentally stimulating activity, being able to access email and search the Internet provides a link to public life. It’s a great way to keep in touch with long-distance friends and family, stay up-to-date on the news, or watch TV shows and viral videos. Computers can help seniors with limited mobility maintain a strong connection with the world, and this inclusivity may help boost their self-esteem.