Story at a glance
- Older adults may not use the internet as much as younger people.
- A survey of older adults in European countries collected data on internet use as well as other information about their lives.
- Researchers who analyzed the data found that older adults who use the internet in retirement could perform better on word recall tests than people who do not use the internet.
We use the internet for so many purposes these days, but it’s a relatively new technology that some older adults may not have had access to. What’s interesting is how they may have started to use the internet and how they are using it into retirement. One team of researchers is particularly interested in how it relates to cognitive function and how internet use may help keep cognitive function into old age.
In a study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, researchers look at data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) to understand how older adults use the internet in retirement. The survey asks about health, socioeconomic information and employment history.
Specifically, the researchers looked at data from 2,105 older people, who have been retired since 2004, in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Israel, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Cognitive function was assessed in 2013 and 2015 for survey participants using a word recall test.
The researchers found that people who used the internet after retirement were able to recall 1.22 more words during the recall test than people who did not use the internet. “Our results reveal that using the internet, post-retirement, leads to a marked reduction in the rate of cognitive decline,” said Vincent O'Sullivan, a co-author from Lancaster University Management School, in a press release. "Interestingly, this protective effect was found to be most significant amongst women, with female retirees who regularly surfed the internet able to recall 2.37 more words compared to women who didn't go online.”
For men, the retired internet users were able to recall 0.94 more words than non-internet using men with similar characteristics. The researchers also saw some differences among the countries. For example, only about 12 percent of retirees use the internet in Italy while the percentage is much higher at 60 percent in Denmark.
What type of job you had prior to retirement could also have an influence.
“We also found that retirees who used computers in their jobs before retirement were more likely to keep using computers once they retired, and hence had better cognitive function,” O’Sullivan said.
The researchers used statistical models to try to separate out the potential effects of using the internet before and after retirement.
“Research has shown that retirement from the workforce is a critical period for cognitive function, which declines with age and can be a predictor for a range of key health outcomes among older people,” said co-author Likun Mao in the press release. “We were able to discern that pre-retirement computer usage does not directly influence post-retirement cognitive decline, and we ensured our results referred only to post-retirement internet usage.”
Future studies could dive deeper into the types of online activities the retirees are spending their time on, and could potentially shed more light on how internet use could impact cognitive function in the years after working life.
Colin Green, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology said in the press release, “Interacting with others online, finding out information in order to attend social activities or simple tasks like shopping online can all make life easier for retirees, but we are yet to understand which, if any, of these tasks actually go as far as improving cognitive performance.”
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