Going offline: Reduced computer activity could be early sign of dementia

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Lower levels of computer use among older patients correlate with physical characteristics in the brain associated with dementia and related cognitive diseases, according to results of a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The use of home computers to conduct the day-to-day business of life such as email, banking, and accessing government programs and information has led to an increase in the number of elderly patients on the Internet, with more than 60 percent of people 65 and older now estimated to be online.

How well and how often these patients use computers could be useful in studying cognitive abilities among the elderly population, according to lead author Lisa Silbert, MD, and her colleagues from the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

“Successful computer use likely requires the ability to effectively call upon multiple cognitive domains, including executive function, attention, and memory,” they wrote. “It is therefore conceivable that daily computer use may be viewed as a bellwether of high level … ‘everyday cognition’ from which meaningful changes regarding cognitive status may be observed; changes in this activity may indicate cognitive decline.”

Silbert and her team set out to examine the relationship between average daily computer usage and signs of potential neurodegeneration of the brain. They performed MRI exams on study volunteers who were cognitively intact and dementia-free. They also tracked participants’ computer usage using mouse-movement detection recorded over a one-month period near the time of the MRI.

They found that the study subjects spent an average of 51 minutes online per day, with patients who used the computer exhibiting smaller hippocampal volumes on MRI.

“Less daily computer use is associated with smaller brain volume in regions that are integral to memory function and known to be involved early with Alzheimer’s pathology and conversion to dementia,” the authors concluded. “Continuous monitoring of daily computer use may detect signs of preclinical neurodegeneration in older individuals at risk for dementia.”