As soon as Bruce and Esther Huffman bought a shiny new laptop, their granddaughter, Mindy, taught them how to record a video using the built-in webcam—or so she thought. Here's what happened, a little while later, when the octogenarian duo attempted to operate the device without their granddaughter's guidance:
Since Mindy posted the humorous results of her grandparents' endearing endeavor on YouTube, the video has garnered more than 11.5 million views. And, going beyond the sheer entertainment value of this particular clip, there is emerging evidence that engaging in online pursuits is beneficial for older adults—especially when it comes to preventing depression and cognitive decline.
Computer Savvy Could Boost Cognition
So-called digital literacy—being able to browse the web, send e-mails and operate basic computer programs—may slow down cognitive decline in middle-aged and older adults, according to recently published study of aging Englishmen (and women).
Researchers from the University College London followed more than 6,400 people aged 50 and older for eight years, periodically assessing their overall physical and mental health, as well as their ability to perform various activities of daily living.
The average cognitive capacity of the participants decreased over the course of the study, and this decline was especially marked in people who had scored lower on their baseline cognitive assessments. But, no matter where an individual fell on the cognitive scale at the beginning of the study, people who were digitally literate experienced less mental erosion than their non-computer-savvy counterparts.
"This is the first major study to show that being digitally literate can improve memory," declare study authors. They also note that a separate investigation into the benefits of digital literacy indicated that being able to operate a computer properly lowered a person's risk for developing problems with performing instrumental activities of daily living—housework, medication management, shopping, etc.—as they aged.
Prevent Depression with Digital Pursuits
A few hours online could also reduce an older adult's chances of succumbing to the twin plagues of loneliness and depression by more than 30 percent, says a recent analysis published in the "Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences."
"It all has to do with older persons being able to communicate, to stay in contact with their social networks and just not feel lonely." says lead study author Sheila Cotten, professor of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University (MSU), in a press release. Cotten's team tracked the rates of internet usage, loneliness and depression in a group of more than 3,000 seniors who were part of the larger "Health and Retirement" survey, a nationwide survey of 22,000 older adults conducted every two years.
Loneliness can have serious health consequences. And with 43 percent of Americans over 55 feeling lonely on a regular basis (according to a University of California, San Francisco study) it's essential to look for new ways to keep people in touch with their friends and family, especially as they age.
While interacting with loved ones online wasn't able to completely eradicate depression in seniors who were already suffering from the mental disorder in the MSU study, it did minimize some of the symptoms, particularly for those elders who were living on their own.
For younger individuals who are used to spending time in the digital world, teaching a parent or grandparent how to navigate cyberspace can seem frustrating and fruitless. But helping a loved one engage in these types of activities not only encourages intergenerational communication, but could also provide protection against some of the more devastating effects of aging: isolation and dementia.