Is Dementia Risk Related to Computer Use in Older Adults?

Diagram from Almeida OP, Yeap BB, Alfonso H, Hankey GJ, Flicker L, et al. (2012) Older Men Who Use Computers Have Lower Risk of Dementia. PLoS ONE 7(8):

e44239. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044239 (Creative Commons Attribution License)

An interesting Australian study published in PLOS One recently by Almeida and colleagues suggests that computer use is associated with a reduced incidence of Dementia. However this is not the same as saying that computer use reduces the risk of Dementia. That would imply causality. This study establishes a relationship and the authors draw caution in their conclusions.

So what were the key points of the study?

  • 5506 older adult men (age 69 to 87 years) were followed-up in the community
  • Mean age was 75.5 years
  • They were followed up for 8.5 years
  • The primary outcome was the incidence of Dementia (using ICD-10 diagnostic criteria)
  • If diagnoses were made before 1996, ICD-9 was used
  • Computer use was self-assessed – a simple question about computer use was asked
  • The prevalence of computer users decreased with increasing age
  • High school completers were more likely to use computers than non-high school completers
  • Computer users were more active socially
  • Computer users were less likely to show depressive symptoms
  • 6.3% of men received a diagnosis of Dementia
  • The Hazards Ratio for Dementia for computer users compared to non users was 0.49 (95% Confidence Interval 0.38-0.64)
  • The results were unchanged after adjusting for high school attainment and other possible confounders
  • More frequent self-reported computer use was associated with reduced incidence of Dementia

The researchers have recruited a large number of subjects in their study and followed them up for a lengthy period. The study does not establish causality but these results are extremely interesting and an investigation of causality would be a natural follow-up to this study. There is other research that suggests that computer use is associated with improved social networks in keeping with these study results. Computer use can also be cognitively stimulating although this does not necessarily follow. Thus there may be many associations of computer use that have a protective effect. Education is a natural confounder to consider but the researchers adjusted for high school attainment. We also don’t know how long subjects had been using computers for.

The study raises interesting questions with the potential to inform lifestyle choices although further research is needed before firmer conclusions can be drawn.

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