Healthy Aging

Online Activities Give Aging Brains a Boost


If you’re reading this, you’re at least somewhat digitally literate. Keep learning! A new study finds that knowing your way around the Internet and using digital tools may help you hang onto your memory and other cognitive skills – even improve them – as you age.

“Using computers and the Internet will protect people who are 50 years or more from memory decline,” says the study’s lead author Andre Junqueira Xavier, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine at Brazil’s Universidade do Sul de Santa Catarina. And that, he adds, means a lower risk for dementia.

His study, which for eight years followed more than 6,400 people ages 50 to 89 in the U.K., is published in the September issue of  “The Journals of Gerontology.”

The men and women were tested at the study start and then at four other points during the eight years. Each time, they were asked to remember a 10-word list for an extended period – a measure of cognitive functioning. Xavier looked to see how much change each had in delayed recall across the years. The study subjects also reported how often they used the Internet and email.

Compared to non users, by the study’s end those who used the Internet and email had an improvement of three percent in their ability to recall the words. If three percent seems insignificant, remember that our cognitive abilities normally decline slowly for many years rather than improving. “Three percent progress is quite good,” Xavier says.

“This is the first major study to show that being digitally literate can improve memory,” he writes.

How does it work? Experts think digital literacy may boost brain reserve, or the brain’s ability to resist damage. Computer use helps in other ways, too, especially if you keep widening your online horizons. “New learnings create new connections in your brain,” Xavier says.

How to Boost Brain Power Through Computer Use

So, how can you best preserve memory by going online? “All activities in computers and the Internet have different effects,” Xavier says.

His suggestion: Mix it up.

Xavier’s Rx emphasizes exploration: ”The best thing is to do many activities: browsing, games, social networking, online courses, film and music.”

According to him, these online activities are especially beneficial:

  • Online shopping can help you with organization skills
  • Games, especially when played in groups, are good for executive functions, which include a variety of skills, such as remembering phone numbers and finishing projects
  • Creating and listening to music playlists, building and browsing photo albums, and watching and rating films are good for longterm memory – as are other interactive online activities that rely on you to make selections, and that encourage you to respond. So whether you’re “liking,” “skipping,” rating or reviewing entertainment you consumer online, you’re doing well.

How long should you spend online for maximum benefit? “The best would be a daily practice, about one hour, like studying,” Xavier says. “I don’t know yet if more than this is better.”

Expect to see improvement in six months to a year, he estimates.

The entire study can be found here.

Learn how to do – and explore – more online: Read our Tech Tips.


5 responses to “Online Activities Give Aging Brains a Boost

  1. To say this idea is rubbish shows a complete lack of understanding of the human brain! Check out Adam Gazzelay research showing seniors 65-85 showing unbelievable improvement in cognition through paying a “game” regularly. They are now working with Lucas studios to develop a new “game” that will do even more!! Also read his book the distracted mind!

  2. My grandmother and mother had what is now called Alzheimer. So, I am happy to get the news that by using the computer every day and following your advice of what to view will help me to keep my memory. Thanks for this information.

  3. Nice summary article- I’d love to see a series how this directly impacts seniors in a concrete way- to give hope to those curious but unsure how to proceed in the daunting online world and it’s related (often) complicated technologies.

    Also to refute the bizarrely pessimistic comments like John left here. I too have worked with seniors for many years, the tech impact can be and is always a positive if introduced slowly and in a friendly way. Neuroscientists have proven time and time again the brain can grow again and dementia can be reversed, depression lessened when one connects with others and has stimulation. It’s classic “use it or lose it”.

    Brain games alone are a wonderful thing, as is access to podcasts, and the ease of searching out sites related to their specific interests, not to forget the essential joy of sharing stories/photos and keeping in touch with family. It’s an invaluable personal tool that should be used widely, especially for those unable to travel far or that have limited mobility.

  4. Are you serious? Having worked with epileptics and victims of Alzheimers for years I can assure you that if such a think were true there would be quillions of people talking about it. It’s rubbish, trivial and put there for attention. A fact? Trivial articles like this are ten-a penny.

    1. Sorry I seem to have annoyed you with what you call my bizarrely pessimistic comments. My experience has been very different to yours. I can only say that I found the depth of the study, the numbers involved, did not impress me, and that the kind of terms used in the article sounded unsophisticated.
      I’m happily aware of and involved in many of the positive ways forward in this field, and if this same study can produce more extensive and positive research I will happily applaud.
      I think some people – not you – but some have a knee-jerk reaction to such articles in which they feel obliged to be positive. I dont.
      My own work in the field, looking after a large number of Alzheimer’s victims has left me feeling unremittingly positive, and I wish you well in yours.

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