If you're middle-aged or older you've probably watched in awe as children and teens navigate modern technology -- computers, cellphones, digital cameras -- with amazing ease. But oldsters can become tech-savvy, too, and new research suggests we probably should try.
UCLA neuroscience professor Gary Small has completed a study showing that Internet use stimulates the brain and improves cognitive function in people age 55 and older. Small studied 24 cognitively normal people ages 55 to 76. The subjects were similar in age, education level and gender. But they differed in that half were experienced Internet users and half had no experience. Small performed functional MRI scans of their brains while they read from a book and performed Web searches. During the Internet searches, the brains of the Web-savvy people registered much more activity in areas affecting decision-making and complex reasoning compared with the inexperienced Web users.
"A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older," Small said.
The lack of brain activity in the inexperienced Web users is most likely due to inexperience, says Small, whose study is expected to be published soon in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. With more time on the Internet, those people may also increase their levels of brain activation.
The study confirms what other research suggests: That the brain is plastic, and by stimulating it with complex or new activities, it functions better and longer. Small has written a new book on the impact of modern technology on aging brains, "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," (HarperCollins). In the book, he argues that the explosion of digital technology is altering the human brain, in good ways and bad. Our brains may be evolving new neural pathways to engage with all of the smart devices in the world. But we may also lose some under-used neural pathways, too.
-- Shari Roan
Photo credit: Kirk McCoy / Los Angeles Times