Seniors Who Use Internet Could Reap Health Benefits, Studies Show

by George Lauer, iHealthBeat Features Editor

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A couple of recent studies indicate elders are beginning to appreciate and embrace the health benefits of IT, a trend some predict will grow rapidly as the health industry gets up to speed with digital technology.

According to research released in October, spending time online reduces depression and increases cognitive brain function among senior citizens. A study conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Phoenix Center found that spending time online reduces depression by 20% for senior citizens.

Along with improvements in quality of life, researchers say reducing the incidence of depression by widespread Internet use among older Americans could help trim the nation's health care bill.

Meanwhile, researchers from Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California-Los Angeles found that surfing the Web for only a week stimulated areas of the brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning in middle-aged and older adults with little Internet experience. 

Tangible, measurable health benefits of technology, along with anecdotal evidence delivered word-of-mouth or through the media, will boost seniors' engagement, experts say.

David Lindeman, executive director of the Center for Technology and Aging, said when seniors begin seeing "real-life applications for health IT that actually improve their lives," barriers to technology go down and adoption goes up.

"When people see something that can actually improve their lives, they're going to seek it out and use it," Lindeman said.

"Five or 10 years ago, it may have been easy to say older adults were uncomfortable with some of the new technology, but that's changing on many levels. In addition to the issues of social connectedness and communication, you now have a whole new array of health benefits and those are about to expand with the possibilities of smart phones and mobile technology. That's going to be huge," Lindeman said.

Depression Study

Phoenix Center researchers said the implications of their findings are significant because depression affects millions of Americans aged 55 and older and costs about $100 million annually in direct medical and workplace costs.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates 42% of Americans aged 65 and older use the Internet, significantly lower than rates of other age groups.

Because of the relatively low usage rates, researchers said the opportunity for better health outcomes from expanded Internet adoption among seniors is substantial.

"Efforts to expand broadband use in the U.S. must eventually tackle the problem of low adoption in the elderly population," George Ford, Phoenix Center chief economist and co-author of the study, said in a release accompanying the report.

"The positive mental health consequences of Internet [use] demonstrate, in part, the value of demand for stimulus programs aimed at older Americans," Ford added.

Cognitive Study

Findings in the UCLA research suggest that Internet use can enhance brain function and cognition in older adults.

Aging brains are susceptible to a variety of maladies ranging from atrophy to plaque buildup. Research has shown that mental stimulation -- such as that from using the Internet -- can affect the efficiency of cognitive processing and alter the way the brain deals with new information.

"We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function," study author Gary Small said in a statement accompanying the report.

Small -- author of iBrain, a book examining the impact of new technology on the brain and behavior -- and his team of researchers worked with 24 neurologically normal volunteers between ages 55 and 78. The participants were divided into two groups -- one that used the Internet daily and the other with little or no online experience.

After basic Internet training and brief practice at home, participants with minimal online experience displayed brain activation patterns triggering areas of the brain known to be important in memory and decision-making.

"The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," said Teena Moody, the study's author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute.

Center for Technology and Aging

The Center for Technology and Aging -- a new organization formed this year with a grant from the SCAN Foundation in California and affiliated with the Public Health Institute -- focuses on specific areas of technology's health effects on seniors.

"We have identified seven areas we think are key to seniors' engagement with technology and their health," Lindeman said, adding, "We've gone through our first set of grants dealing with medication optimization, and we hope to announce our second area of grants in the area of remote patient monitoring by the beginning of the year."

The center's seven areas of focus:

  • Medication optimization -- technologies designed to help manage medication information, dispensing, adherence and tracking;
  • Remote patient monitoring -- technologies designed to manage and monitor a range of health conditions;
  • Assistive technologies -- devices and equipment that help individuals perform a task or prevent injury;
  • Remote training and supervision -- technologies used to train and supervise health and long-term care workers, and the potential for continuing education and quality assurance;
  • Disease management -- patient-centric, coordinated care processes for patients with chronic conditions and conditions that have a significant self-care component;
  • Cognitive fitness and assessment -- technologies that measure cognition or include cognitive practice regimens; and
  • Social networking -- technologies that enable the building of communities of interest that help older adults communicate, organize, and share with other older adults and care providers.

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