Sitting in front of a computer screen may seem like inactivity, but it could be giving your brain a workout. It may even help protect your brain from cognitive decline, Mayo Clinic researchers say.
In a new study, the researchers found that people who reported using the computer and participating in moderate physical activity — like walking or swimming — were less likely to experience age-related memory loss, compared with people who did either of the activities on its own.
“The results were over and above what we expected, but not surprising,” says lead researcher Dr. Yonas E. Geda, a physician scientist with Mayo Clinic in Arizona. ”We know physical exercise is independently associated with brain function and mentally stimulating activities are also independently associated with brain function. Combing the two makes sense.”
Geda and his colleagues studied 926 people aged 70 to 93 in Olmstead County, Minn. The participants filled out questionnaires about the frequency of mentally or physically stimulating activities over the previous year. Based on the responses, researchers singled out computer use, as opposed to other brain-challenging activities like reading or crafts, due to its popularity.
The researchers then compared the participants’ responses to their cognitive health. Among the participants who did not exercise or use a computer, 20.1% were cognitively normal and 37.6% had signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a stage of cognitive decline between normal age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s dementia. Among those who participated in moderate exercise and used a computer, 36% were cognitively normal and 18.3% showed signs of MCI.
The participants’ physical exercises were defined as mild, moderate or vigorous. Mild exercise included bowling and stretching, moderate activities included hiking and tennis, and vigorous exercise referred to jogging or biking uphill. Although those who combined computer use and frequent moderate exercise were least likely to have MCI, Geda says that any kind of exercise — as long as you do it regularly — has benefits. Many previous studies have also linked physical activity with a lower risk of dementia.
“Even exercising once a week was beneficial. Most of the participants seeing the greatest benefits were exercising five to six times a week combined with computer activity,” says Geda.
Why the combination appeared to be cognitively protective is still unclear. The researchers speculate that physical exercise increases good health in general — or is a marker for a generally healthy lifestyle — which also affects the health of the brain, particularly the regions involved with memory. The computer activity may separately boost brain function at the neurological level.
“The mental stimulation may be polishing the communication lines and giving good connections between neurons. It’s like working in a concert. When the two processes come together, it works like a symphony,” says Geda.
Geda hopes that his findings will spur further research on the topic and more closely analyze the role of computer use — an increasingly common activity among all age groups — in cognitive health. The current study did not determine how long the participants spent on the computer overall or what they were using it for, which is a weakness of the study, the authors acknowledge. It also does not establish a causal link between computer use and risk of memory loss.
The research was published in the May 2012 issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.