According to a recent study, older adults who use Zoom and other digital social platforms to communicate with friends and family experience slower cognitive decline than to people who don’t.
While isolation and loneliness have become a massive public health concern on their own over the past 14 months, new research brings a little good news. The digital platforms to which so many people have turned to in order to stay connected — Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts and similar services — may actually help protect cognitive health, and even delay dementia, in older adults.
Loneliness has proven to take a toll on the brain. In fact, those who experience it are at a 40 percent higher risk of developing dementia later in their life, so staying in touch with friends and family is considered a key lifestyle factor that can help protect against dementia. Although human interaction is good for maintaining routine and helping fight agitation and feelings of apathy, online video calls and socialization may be especially helpful.
In a recent study from the University of West London’s Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory, and the University of Manchester, researchers observed older adults for a period of 15 years and gleaned that those who regularly go online for social activity actually faced milder memory decline than those who used face-to-face or other traditional types of communications, like phone calls.
Snorri Rafnsson, who led the study and is an associate professor of aging and dementia care at the Geller Institute, said that this is the first time impacts of diversified social interactions have been measured in relevance to long-term memory, and that traditional methods along with online activity may actually help stave off a dementia diagnosis.
“The more platforms they can master, the better,” he told The Guardian, emphasizing that the more diverse types of technology used by older people can enhance their protections against cognitive decline.
According to Rafnsson, it isn’t that video call platforms offer protective powers, beating out phone calls or human interaction. Rather, older adults who adopt these relatively high-tech ways of communicating are not only combating loneliness — they are learning how to use new tools, and adding variety to the ways in which they communicate, which have extra benefits.
The study consisted of 11,418 participants, both men and women, aged 50 to 90 years old. Questions they were asked consisted of how often they interacted with their family and friends online, in-person or on the phone. Participants then completed memory tests where they were asked to recall 10 words at different times.
Researchers concluded, after examining results for 15 years, that those who explicitly used face-to-face communication showed more signs of heightened cognitive decline compared to their counterparts who used technology to keep in touch with loved ones.
“There are combined factors here, as learning to use and engage with online social technology can offer direct cognitive simulation to keep memory function active,” Rafnsson told The Guardian. “In addition, communicating through diverse channels can facilitate social support exchanges and interactions, which in turn benefit our brains.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has only enhanced loneliness, especially for older adults who were isolated in care facilities or lived alone and separately from their families and friends, leaving families and caregivers to turn to phone call volunteer programs, digital devices for video conferencing, and even robotic cats and dogs for animal-assisted therapy, without the money, time and attention required by a living pet.
In this increasingly lonely time, depression also became more prevalent, especially among older adults. Donald Weaver, professor of chemistry and director of the Krembil Research Institute at the University of Toronto, said a paired diagnosis of dementia and depression have neared “epidemic proportions” in the aging population, with 60 percent of people living with dementia suffering from depression.
“If loneliness and isolation are already noted risk factors for both depression and dementia, then the lockdowns preventing family and caregivers from interacting with their loved ones in long-term care served to hasten the decline,” Weaver said. “We are only just beginning to observe the grim consequences of this imposed isolation,” which he believes in the end, although with the health and safety of everyone in mind, may cause even more despair for those living with cognitive decline.
While the internet is no substitute for in-person human connection, Rafnsson and colleagues believe it has been indispensable during this time. In the UK, according to Ofcom’s adult’s media literacy tracker for 2020-21, more than three quarters of those 65 and older are using the internet while in lockdown, over half are using a smartphone and 59 percent have a social media profile.
“It is fair to say that all the Zooming that went on during lockdown might well have provided older people with a protective cushion against dementia,” Rafnsson said. “I’m sure it did have a beneficial impact on older people.”