Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Computers Back-Up Old Brains

By Stephen Luntz

Computer use is associated with a reduced danger of dementia and cognitive decline among men aged 65–85, a Perth study has found.

“As the world’s population ages, the number of people experiencing cognitive decline and dementia will increase to 50 million by 2025,” says Prof Osvaldo Almeida of the University of WA’s Centre for Health and Ageing. “But if our findings are correct, the increase in the number of cases of dementia over the next 40 years may not be as dramatic as is currently expected.”

Almeida admits that how the computer is used may be equally important, but says his sample did not provide this information. Nevertheless, he says men of this age group are probably “using computers differently from young people”. Anecdotally, older men use computers “for email and Skype, mostly to communicate with others and maintain links, as well as to keep track of finances or places they might wish to visit. They’re not spending a lot of time in front of the computer playing games.”

The survey of computer use among 5000 men was taken in 2004 and compared with measures of cognitive capacity over the following 8 years, so Almeida acknowledges that usage patterns may have changed since. Nevertheless, computer users in his study were 30–40% less likely to develop dementia thereafter, even after controlling for factors such as age, education, social isolation and depression.

Those diagnosed with dementia in the first year were excluded from the sample, as preliminary effects may have altered their behaviour.

“It may be that there is some other factor that was influencing computer use that is also protective against dementia, but we couldn’t think of it,” Almeida says.

While he acknowledges the potential negative effects on physical health of spending too long in front of a computer, Almeida and his co-authors of a PLoS One paper recommend that older people be encouraged to use computers, particularly for purposes that build social inclusion.