Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Social networking giant Facebook has become the tool of choice for many researchers who are studying everything from child psychology to cognitive decline. On the cognitive end, one new study has shown adults over the age of 65 may get an intellectual boost if they learn to use the popular social site.
When it comes to sharpening those cognitive skills, University of Arizona graduate student Janelle Wohltmann says Facebook may be the way to go. The department of psychology researcher set out to see whether teaching older adults to use the social network could help improve cognitive performance and make them feel “more socially connected.”
Sharing her findings at the International Neuropsychological Society (INS) Annual Meeting in Hawaii this month, Wohltmann showed the over-65 group performed about 25 percent better on tasks designed to measure ability to continuously monitor and quickly add or delete the contents of their working memory (known as updating) after they learned to use Facebook.
Wohltmann facilitated the Facebook training for 14 older adults who had either never used the social networking site or only used it less than once a month. The study participants were asked to become friends only with the other participants in the study and were asked to post status updates at least once per day.
In a second group, Wohltmann taught 14 seniors who had not previously used Facebook to use an online diary (Penzu.com) to keep a private record of their daily activities. They were also asked to keep entries short (no more than five sentences) to emulate the typical length of updates generally posted on Facebook.
Wohltmann then told a third group of 14 seniors they were on a “wait-list” to receive Facebook training, but were only used as a control for the study and never received training.
The adults in all three groups ranged in age from 68 to 91 (average age 79) and completed a series of questionnaires and neuropsychological tests to evaluate social variables, including loneliness, social support, and cognitive abilities. After the eight-week-long study, these questions and tests were repeated.
Wohltmann and colleagues, whom included research adviser Betty Glisky, professor and head of the department of psychology at Arizona, found, through the follow-ups, those who had learned to use Facebook performed about 25 percent better than they did at the start of the study on their updating abilities; she found no significant change in either of the two other groups.
The preliminary findings offer a plausible link between social connectedness and cognitive performance.
“The idea evolved from two bodies of research,” said Wohltmann in a statement. “One, there is evidence to suggest that staying more cognitively engaged — learning new skills, not just becoming a couch potato when you retire but staying active — leads to better cognitive performing. It’s kind of this ‘use it or lose it’ hypothesis.
“There’s also a large body of literature showing that people who are more socially engaged, are less lonely, have more social support and are more socially integrated are also doing better cognitively in older age,” she said.
Wohltmann acknowledged further research was needed to determine whether the use of social networking made these older adults feel less lonely or more socially connected. She added further analysis was also needed to determine whether Facebook´s social aspect contributed to improvements in cognitive performance, and if so, by how much.
For the most part, Wohltmann believes Facebook´s complex interface, compared to the online diary site, is largely responsible for the improved performance seen in the study group.
There´s a big difference between Facebook and Penzu.com, Wohltmann explained. For instance, “when you create a diary entry, you create the entry, you save it and that’s all you see, versus if you’re on Facebook, several people are posting new things, so new information is constantly getting posted.”
On Facebook, when updates stream in, users “need to focus on the new information and get rid of the old information, or keep it in mind if [they] want to go back and reference it later, so [they] have to constantly update what’s there in [their] attention,” she explained.
Wohltmann stated there is very little research into how social networking affects seniors, particularly in cognitive ability. With Facebook such a “huge phenomenon in our culture,” she noted such studies can be potentially significant, especially since older adults are a growing presence in social media.
With some 75+ million Baby Boomers approaching older age, there exists more need to study cognitive abilities in the US population. The US is facing a huge health crisis, with cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer´s disease, set to triple by 2050, as reported in an earlier redOrbit story.
And with one in three online seniors now using social networks like Facebook, according to Pew Internet, it is more important than ever to conduct research to find out if social media can improve cognitive function on a wider scale.
While Facebook can be a positive boost for seniors and cognition, Wohltmann admits it is not for everyone.
“One of the take-home messages could be that learning how to use Facebook is a way to build what we call cognitive reserve, to help protect against and stave off cognitive decline due to normal age-related changes in brain function. But there certainly are other ways to do this as well,” she said.
“It’s also important to understand and know about some of the aspects of Facebook that people have concerns about, like how to keep your profile secure,” she said.
In conclusion, Wohltmann said she doesn´t suggest most seniors who haven´t used social networking previously just go out a get an account right away, unless of course there is someone they know who can show them the ropes and “provide the proper education and support “¦ so that they can use it in a safe way.”