Can digital literacy delay cognitive decline?
Researchers think it might. In a recently published study in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences they found that digital literacy — the ability to engage, plan, and execute digital actions such as web browsing and exchanging e-mails — is an independent protective factor against cognitive decline.
Using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, they followed 6,442 participants in the UK between the ages of 50 and 89 for eight years. The data measured delayed recall from a 10-word-list learning task across five separate measurement points. Socioeconomic status, including wealth and education, comorbidities, and baseline cognitive function were included in the models.
Higher wealth, education and digital literacy improved delayed recall, while people with functional impairment, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, depressive symptoms or no digital literacy showed decline.
Those who reported being nonusers of Internet/E-mail and intermittent users showed cognitive decline; in contrast, current users increased their delayed recall capability, with a difference of more than 8.63 percent over the follow up period. Although the group with lower cognitive function at baseline presented higher CD, this group also demonstrated a significant variation in percentage change of the word recall, with better performance for those who used Internet/E-mail.
The effect of digital literacy was independent of age and socio-economic status, suggesting that digital literacy increases cognitive reserve or improves efficiency of cognitive networks to delay decline.
More people in the UK are using the Internet than ever before, however 6.4 million — about 10 percent of the population — say they have never gone online. Of those, 74 percent are over age 65 and half are from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. In comparison, Pew Research reports that about 20 percent of all Americans don’t go online, and 41 percent of those over age 65 in the U.S. do not use the Internet at all. Older adults comprise almost 13 percent of the U.S. population.
The authors write, “countries where policy interventions regarding improvement in digital literacy are implemented may expect lower incidence rates for dementia over the coming decades.” Perhaps something policymakers on both sides of the pond should consider.