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 result of her grandparents’ attempt to join the digital age on YouTube, the video has garnered more than 12 million views. Going beyond the sheer entertainment value of this heartwarming clip, there is emerging evidence that engaging in online pursuits is beneficial for older adults, especially when it comes to preventing depression and memory issues.
Computer Skills Could Boost Cognition
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 a study of aging men and women in England.
Researchers from the University College London followed more than 6,400 people age 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 (ADLs).
The average mental capacity of the participants decreased over the course of the study, which is to be expected with advancing age, but this decline was especially marked in people who had scored lower on their initial baseline cognitive assessments. No matter where an individual fell on the cognitive scale at the beginning of the study, participants who were digitally literate experienced less cognitive decline compared to those who were not computer savvy.
“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 lowered a person’s risk of developing problems with performing instrumental activities of daily living like housework, medication management and shopping as they aged.
Digital Pursuits Prevent Depression
A recent study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences shows that a few hours online could also reduce an older adult’s chances of experiencing loneliness and depression by more than 30 percent.
“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,” explains lead study author Sheila Cotten, professor of telecommunication, information studies and media at Michigan State University. Cotten and her team tracked the rates of internet usage, loneliness and depression in a group of more than 3,000 seniors.
Loneliness can have serious health consequences, such as poor sleep quality, mental health issues, increased inflammation and even a higher risk of premature death. A University of California, San Francisco, study estimates that 43 percent of Americans over age 55 feel lonely on a regular basis, therefore it’s essential for seniors to explore new ways of keeping in touch with friends and family.
Technology can help seniors overcome all kinds of challenges but shrinking the distance between far-away loved ones is a significant perk. Socializing online didn’t completely eradicate depression for seniors in the Michigan State study who were already suffering from the mental disorder, but it did minimize some of the symptoms, particularly for those elders who were living on their own.
To younger generations who are constantly connected and immersed in the digital world, the prospect of 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 valuable intergenerational communication, but could also provide protection against some of the more devastating effects of aging: isolation and cognitive decline.