Computers and dementia risk: what you need to know

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In an age obsessed with technology: mobile phones, computers, laptops and tablets there has been considerable debate about the pros and cons of such technology on our brains and ability to think.

There is certainly evidence to suggest that our new found ability to access vast realms of information can lead problems with information overload and diminished attention skills.

But it is certainly not all bad news and indeed we are now able to stimulate our brains and learn so much simply from having access to this increased digital connectivity.

One of the four pillars to good brain health and brain fitness includes mental challenge. Our wonderful plastic brain is continually adapting and rewiring in response to change in our environment. Neuroscientists and psychologists have established an array of on-line brain training programs designed to stimulate the brain, encourage the formation of new synaptic connections and build cognitive reserve.

These are proving enormously popular across different generations and many people diligently practice their cognitive training whether it be to enhance driving skills or promote memory and attention. Lumosity, Brain HQ, Happy Neuron and others provide access to affordable training.

But do we all need to pursue active cognitive brain training? What about simply using a computer?

Would that stimulate our brain enough to provide sufficient stimulus to protect the brain from potential cognitive decline or dementia?

In 2012, Professor Almeida and his team from the UWA Centre for Health and Ageing published the findings of their 8-year study, which examined whether older men (average age 76 years) who used computers had a lower risk of dementia.

The statistics for projected numbers of people expected to be diagnosed with dementia over the next few decades are staggering. It is anticipated that the expected increase will be a doubling from the current level of 24 million people worldwide, to over 50 million by 2050, as the world's ageing population grows steadily older.

Much research is currently being done to find answers to how the different forms of dementia risk can be reduced. In 2011 Barnes and Yaffe identified a number of modifiable risk factors, which could potentially reduce the projected number of people at risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease by 50%.

Keeping mentally active, remaining curious, continuing to explore and learn new things has been recognised as being neuroprotective. So can using a computer help here?

The answer appears to be a resounding "Yes".

Over 5500 men were included in the longitudinal study. They were assessed using questionnaires to determine their computer usage, what they used the computer for and took into account the variables of age, level of education, social isolation, depression, overall health and cognitive function.

What they found was that the men most likely to be computer users were younger, had completed high school, had an active social life, had better physical health and had less depression.

They discovered that having access to a personal computer lowered the risk of cognitive decline by up to 30-40%.

Which is very good news.

So, encouraging computer use in the elderly would certainly appear to be useful as a tool to help reduce the potential risk of cognitive decline along with maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. But remember, too much sitting is definitely not good for the body or the brain.

Ref:

Almeida OP, Yeap BB, Alfonso H, Hankey GJ, Flicker L, et al. (2012) Older Men Who Use Computers Have Lower Risk of Dementia. PLoS ONE 7(8): e44239. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044239