Most experts expect the rate of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia to rise rapidly worldwide in the years ahead, as the population ages and risk factors increase.
But new research from Australia, published in the science journal PLoSOne, found reason for guarded optimism about curbing the rise of Alzheimer's and dementia in a surprising source: booming rates of computer use.
As part of a longitudinal study of men's health, researchers at Western Australia University report that having access to a personal computer appears to lower the risk of cognitive decline and dementia in older men by as much as 40 percent.
Their study of computer use analyzed more than 5,000 men age 65 or older over eight years and found that computer users were more successful in avoiding dementia. They also had more active social networks and were less likely to show signs of depression.
"If our findings are correct," and regular computer use can help older men ward off the effects of dementia, said lead researcher Osvaldo Almeida of the university's Center for Health and Aging, "the increase in the number of cases over the next 40 years may not be as dramatic as is currently expected."
Almeida says he undertook the study after seeing widespread reports claiming that mentally stimulating activities decreased one's risk of developing dementia. But, he noted, those studies did not analyze the specific impact of computer use. "It got us thinking," he said in a statement. "Could it make a difference? We found that it did, and that there was a significant benefit."
The benefits found in the study could not be attributed to differing levels of education, incidence of depression or overall health among the subjects, Almeida says. Subjects told researchers how often they used computers and whether they used PCs for email, Web surfing, word processing, games or other activities.
In their paper, the Australian team noted that wider studies of larger groups could provide more definitive results. However, given the proliferation of computers, at least in developed Western countries, the researchers speculated that it would be challenging for other studies to produce similar results. The team was able to survey, over a reasonably long period of time, a group that was still old enough to include a significant number of non-computer users — an unlikely scenario for future studies.
While that may not bode well for further research, it's potentially good news for aging Internet surfers. "In this context," the researchers wrote, "the increasing ease of access to personal computers that has occurred over the past 20 years offers hope that the growing exposure of older adults to this technology will enhance their participation in mentally stimulating activities and contribute to maintain cognitive function and reduce the prevalence of dementia in the community."