Boomer alert: Smartphones keep your brain young

Forget Sudoku: Go play with your phone or computer instead. From MNN, September 2015

Keep using that tablet! It will keep you young. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Baby boomers know that exercise keeps your brain young; many will be pleased to learn that so does using your phone or a computer.

There’s no question that as we age, we suffer from cognitive decline, but there are things we can do to slow it down. A new study, Smarter every day: The deceleration of population ageing in terms of cognition suggests that using computers and smartphones might be making a difference. The study authors are not the first to notice this; Nora Ephron pointed it out a couple of years ago:

I am living in the Google years, no question of that. And there are advantages to it. When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google. The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hipper, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn’t it? By handling the obligations of the search mechanism, you almost prove you can keep up.

The study looked at the results of different intelligence tests performed on people 50+ in 2006 and then in 2012, and found that the 2012 cohort had cognitive functioning equivalent to people four to eight years younger. There has been a consistent trend among all ages to generally do better on these tests (it’s called the Flynn effect) that has been attributed to education, nutrition and other causes, but here they studied in particular if technology made a difference.

The thesis that the increasing use of modern technology in everyday life increases cognitive demands on the older population and in turn helps maintain cognitive capacities to higher ages is put to an empirical test in the present study.

And while the study authors qualify their conclusion, noting that other factors could have affected the results, they conclude that indeed, the use of computers and smartphones made a difference. One of the authors of the study, Valeria Bordone, summarizes the results in an interview in business website Quartz

In many cases 52-year-olds from 2006 had the same score as 60-year-olds from 2012. The levels of education hadn’t changed much among these two populations, but we could see that their use of computers and mobile phones had changed quite a bit.

Evidently to the kids writing at Quartz, 52- and 60-year-olds are senior citizens. However the authors of the study do extrapolate down the road and suggest that video games and other software programs can help keep multi-tasking skills and attention spans high as we age. 

Nora Ephron was right; living in the Google years does keep you smarter longer, not just because you can find the information you need, but the actual act of looking for it and finding it keeps your brain working. According to another study,smartphone users even have “an enhanced thumb sensory representation in the brain” — using your phone and tablet keeps your thumbs young too.

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