With millions forced to work, learn and socialize remotely, the pandemic has been a boon to video conferencing. Many older folks had little choice but to replace their traditional face to face chats by venturing online – possibly for the first time – so they could see and talk to their friends, family and especially their grandchildren.
Their determination to access the internet’s social possibilities is beneficial in more ways than they might imagine. The latest research shows communicating online can stave off memory loss and protect against dementia.
Frequent social contact is known to benefit cognition in later life, but the relevance of different types of communication is unclear.
To fill this gap, researchers in the United Kingdom conducted a study involving 11,418 men and women between the ages of 50 and 90.
Testing Episodic Memory
Researchers asked participants how often they interacted with their family and friends in person, over the phone, and online. Researchers gave them memory tests in which they asked them to recall a list of ten words read to them either immediately or after a delay of several minutes. Depending on how many they got right they earned a memory score between zero and twenty.
This test is used to assess episodic memory, the ability to recollect meaningful events, situations, and experiences in a person’s life. This type of long-term memory is especially sensitive to the effects of aging, and its impairment is “a hallmark sign of major forms of dementia,” the researchers explain.
Since the ability to hear is important for communication, it was noted which respondents had either good hearing or some hearing loss.
The researchers conducted the study for 15 years, and the results bring good news for users of Zoom.
Online Communication Stimulates the Brain
After adjusting the findings to consider multiple influences on memory, the results demonstrated that people using face to face or phone as the only means of communication had steeper memory declines than those who engaged with online social activity.
The researchers also found that the more diverse the methods used to communicate overall, the greater the benefit to cognitive function over time. This was especially the case among those with hearing loss, where an even greater impact was seen.
Study leader Snorri Rafnsson, Associate Professor of Ageing and Dementia Care at the University of West London, commented on the findings, saying, “This shows for the first time the impact of diverse, frequent and meaningful interactions on long-term memory, and specifically, how supplementing more traditional methods with online social activity may achieve that among older adults.
“There are combined factors here, as learning to use and engage with online social technology can offer direct cognitive stimulation to keep memory function active. In addition, communicating through diverse channels can facilitate social support exchanges and interactions, which in turn benefit our brains.
“We can also see a positive impact among older people with hearing loss, who by making use of online tools such as email, may be better able to focus solely on the quality of an interaction to achieve those same cognitive benefits.
“With more and more older adults now using online communication so frequently, especially during the past year of global lockdowns, it poses the question as to what extent technology can help sustain relationships and overcome social isolation, and how that can also help maintain brain health.”
By way of comment, I want to mention that this is just about the only study suggesting that spending a lot of time online may be beneficial! In most cases – especially when the communication is done by social networks, and especially when the network is Facebook – the impact on mental health is not good. I think emails are probably a better medium but they have their own drawbacks, especially a tendency to fire off rude and thoughtless things we’d never say to a person’s face. My takeaway is that online communication is fine when there’s no other choice, but should be employed in moderation and in addition to socializing face-to-face and by phone.
I also wonder whether the people in this study who communicated only face to face or by phone are less intelligent, less educated and less comfortable with technology, and perhaps even less affluent (no smartphone, no iPad, maybe no desktop). These demographic factors correlate with higher rates of memory loss among seniors, and might be the explanation for the results of this study.