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Get online to stop memory decline

What’s happening? The risk of memory decline among older people may be reduced by online and in-person communication, according to a study in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B. Researchers examined the regular communication habits of 11,418 people aged between 50 and 90-years-old. They were asked how often they connected with friends and relatives online, via phone and in person before completing a memory test. Considering a 15-year impact, the team found those using only traditional communications had greater memory decline compared to people who also interacted online. The positive impact was more pronounced among deaf people. (University of West LondonThe Journals of Gerontology Series B)

Why does this matter? Rates of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are rising. It’s predicted the number of people living with these conditions will increase globally to 152m in 2050, a 204% increase from the 50 million sufferers in 2018. This isn’t surprising, given ageing populations are growing at a faster rate than ever before. To mitigate the impacts, it’s vital people act to protect their brains against neurodegenerative disease.

Remember remember – Taking part in activities that help preserve memory is one way of achieving this, and it’s encouraging to see the benefits of online communication in older people. One of the, dare we say it, more positive outcomes from the Covid-19 pandemic has been a rise in the number of older people embracing communication technologies such as Zoom or WhatsApp to keep in touch with family and friends – as well as establish new connections within their communities and beyond. Being socially engaged can help both reduce feelings of loneliness and also the risk of dementia.

Let’s play – Gaming also has a protective role, as demonstrated in a 2020 study where researchers found playing legendary video game Super Mario Bros. helped improve recognition memory in older people. Controlling the Italian plumber to collect coins and mushrooms had a better effect than playing Angry Birds or Solitaire on improving memory. The researchers concluded that novel experiences in 3D environments may work together to improve cognition.

People already with dementia can benefit from gaming too. An “exergame” developed by ETH Zurich spin-off Dividat encourages users to follow a sequence of foot movements as instructed on a screen. Researchers found this improved cognitive skills, concentration, memory and reaction time, suggesting the game can not only weaken dementia symptoms but also delay their appearance.

Don’t forget – Older people may be limited in their access to these technologies and it’s not just about obtaining a physical device and getting an internet connection, it’s also a lack of digital literacy that stands in the way. This digital divide must be addressed by everybody so all older people can fully engage with society and reap the benefits that technology can bring them.

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Nicola Watts

Health Care Curator

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