Using Zoom could help older people avoid dementia, study reveals

Those who communicate online alongside traditional methods show less of a decline in episodic memory

Defiant in the face of Covid isolation, older people across the country ventured online, often for the first time, and mastered technology: reading bedtime stories to grandchildren over Zoom and holding book clubs on Microsoft Teams.

Now a UK study has shown that their determination to access and enjoy the internet’s social possibilities could have had another advantage: protecting them against dementia.

Researchers have found that older people who frequently use online communication alongside traditional social interactions in person or over the phone showed less of a decline in episodic memory – the ability to recollect meaningful events, the impairment of which is a sign of major forms of dementia.

The study by the University of West London’s Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory, and the University of Manchester, entitled Social Contact and 15-year Episodic Memory Trajectories in Older Adults With and Without Hearing Loss, looked at regular communication habits of 11,418 men and women aged between 50 and 90 years old.

Examining the impact over 15 years, the study, published in the Journals of Gerontology, found that people using only traditional communications such as face-to-face meetings and telephone communications experienced steeper memory decline than participants who enriched their social activity online.

Glamma Beijing, four amateur model grandmothers, have more than 1 million followers on the Chinese video-sharing platform Douyin. On TikTok, over 488,000 people follow them as @fashion_grannies.
Glamma Beijing, four amateur model grandmothers, have more than 1 million followers on the Chinese video-sharing platform Douyin. On TikTok, over 488,000 people follow them as @fashion_grannies. Photograph: Tiktok

And the more diverse the communication methods overall, the greater the benefit to cognitive function over time – particularly among those with hearing loss, where even greater impact was observed.

The study was led by Snorri Rafnsson, an associate professor of ageing and dementia care at the Geller Institute.

“This shows for the first time the impact of diverse, frequent and meaningful interactions on long-term memory, and specifically, how supplementing more traditional methods with online social activity may achieve that among older adults,” he said.

“There are combined factors here, as learning to use and engage with online social technology can offer direct cognitive simulation to keep memory function active. In addition, communicating through diverse channels can facilitate social support exchanges and interactions, which in turn benefit our brains.

“It is fair to say that all the Zooming that went on during lockdown might well have provided older people with a protective cushion against dementia,” he said. “I’m sure it did have a beneficial impact on older people.”

In a call to senior TikTok and older Instagram users everywhere, Rafnsson emphasised that the more diverse the means of technology embraced by older people, the more protective the experience became. “The more platforms they can master, the better,” he said.

The pandemic has been the catalyst for a step-change in digital skills for older people. Ofcom’s adults’ media literacy tracker 2020-21 found that older people with limited digital skills had embraced new technology during lockdown, with 77% of those aged 65-plus using the internet at home, 55% using a smartphone and 59% having a social media profile.

The study also found that older internet users aged 65-plus were just as likely as the average internet user to use a tablet to go online, with 91% having a Facebook profile.

Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, said: “Given the reliance on Zoom and the like at present, it’s good to hear that virtual communication can help people with dementia as much as the face-to-face form.”


Amelia Hill

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Nursing home lets people with dementia live down memory lane
Vintage setting in Yorkshire building aims to calm residents amid era they remember best

Helen Pidd North of England editor

05, Oct, 2018 @2:25 PM

Article image
How memory apps can help people with dementia tap into their past | Anna Bawden
New apps that help people with dementia to reminisce about their earlier lives have the potential to transform their care and their quality of life

Anna Bawden

23, Aug, 2016 @12:59 PM

Article image
Regular exercise might help slow down progression of dementia, says study
Authors advise caution over possible effects physical activity may have on memory and attention of those with condition

Denis Campbell, health correspondent

04, Dec, 2013 @12:02 AM

Article image
Half a million over-75s with dementia will have to pay for TV licences – study
BBC decision to transfer cost of licence fee will hit vulnerable older people hard, says Labour

Peter Walker Political correspondent

13, Oct, 2019 @4:25 PM

Article image
HRT not linked to increased risk of dementia, says study
UK researchers studied 600,000 women over three decades

Andrew Gregory Health editor

29, Sep, 2021 @10:30 PM

Article image
Dementia risk may be higher for older people who have general anaesthetics
Study of 9,000 patients suggests general anaesthetics may affect brains as a result of postoperative cognitive dysfunction

Denis Campbell

31, May, 2013 @10:00 PM

Article image
Underweight people face significantly higher risk of dementia, study suggests
Research involving health records of 2 million people condradicts current thinking, sparking surprise among authors and health experts

Sarah Boseley Health editor

09, Apr, 2015 @11:01 PM

Article image
How gardening is helping people with dementia

Rachel Pugh: The therapeutic qualities of gardens are increasingly being recognised as a way to improve the health of care home residents

Rachel Pugh

30, Jul, 2013 @2:00 PM

Article image
Extra 10,000 dementia deaths in England and Wales in April
People with dementia ‘just switching off’ amid reduced medical care and family visits

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

04, Jun, 2020 @11:01 PM

Article image
Just one hour a week of social interaction helps dementia patients
Chatting to care-home residents about their interests boosts their quality of life, according to trial

Haroon Siddique

07, Feb, 2018 @12:01 AM