Going online is good for your brain, says study

By Katheen Dohenny

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.