A new study suggests that the internet might be slowing human aging
A bit of flotsam in the deep waters of the newspaper health sections snagged my attention this week. You know I’m perpetually annoyed by the media’s bias toward encouraging techno-fear and neglecting the unearned benefits of technological change. Journalists obsess over the speculative effects of internet use, social media and generic “screen time,” but rarely write about how the net has given almost all of humanity literal superpowers that were unimaginable in 1990.
I mean, I get it: during the Industrial Revolution, the daily newspapers were not exactly full of editorialists remarking on all the Industrial Revolutioning that was going on around them. History always hides in plain sight while it’s happening.
Anyway, I’m the ideal audience for a headline that reads: Could Regular Internet Use Lower Risk Of Dementia? New Study Suggests Yes. As a born skeptic, my expectation was that some small or brief study had shown a marginal effect of this sort, probably by means of elaborate statistical witchcraft that is hard to critique. But we live in an aging civilization, for better or worse, so even a small reduction in dementia risk might be worth noting.
Well … how does 50 per cent sound? If that kind of effect came in pill form, you’d slaughter a neighbour or two to get it. The study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, authored by three researchers at New York University, uses a whole suite of weighting and analysis methods to arrive at estimates of how much regular internet use lowers (or raises) the probability of developing dementia. The NYU team used data gathered prospectively for the University of Michigan’s ongoing Health and Retirement Study, which administers a cognitive test by telephone every two years to a cohort of about 20,000 adults. Data were gathered over a period of up to 17 years (with a median in the sample of eight), giving this paper an edge over earlier studies on the topic of dementia and internet use.
Mind you, those earlier studies, some of which were pretty powerful themselves, reached more or less the same conclusion: regular internet use among older adults is very strongly associated with delayed onset of dementia. Whether there’s a causal link is always hard to say, and there are (statistically non-significant) signs in the NYU study that the benefit of being connected to the net is diminished or reversed for extremely heavy users. The authors of the study make a pretty big deal of that part, almost to the point of de-emphasizing the main result that the frickin’ internet might be slowing human aging.
That finding was remarkably impervious to correction for statistical covariates — not only the baseline cognitive scores attained by respondents in their first interview, but self-reported physical health, age, income, marital status and region. The size of the effect was indistinguishable between the sexes, among different racial groups and for different generations of codger.
It might still be that there is some trace of selection effect here. Older people who are novelty-seeking and comfortable with technology will obviously have an initial edge when it comes to cognitive survival. Nobody can be sure that factoring in cognitive baseline performance, household income and other things is enough to eliminate that concern.
But even if you have no contact whatsoever with older people, you’ll have seen how they use the net to share games, jokes, personal and family news, and an infinitude of cat memes. Of course if you invent a networked machine for alleviating isolation and multiplying social and para-social relationships, it’s going to diminish dementia incidence — even though that wasn’t anybody’s explicit goal in inventing it. The internet may be an underappreciated reason, or even the single most important reason, why some gerontologists’ 1980s and ’90s predictions of a catastrophic dementia epidemic have not quite panned out as foreseen.
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