Online Interactions May Slow Memory Decline, Study Finds

For Immediate Release
May 13, 2021

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Regularly communicating with friends and family online as well as in person can help maintain long-term memory among older people, according to a study by the University of West London’s Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory, and the University of Manchester.

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

The study “Social Contact and 15-year Episodic Memory Trajectories in Older Adults with and without Hearing Loss,” published in the The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, looked at regular communication habits of 11,418 men and women aged between 50 and 90 years old.

Participants were asked how often they interacted with friends and family online, over the phone, and in person, before completing memory tests where they were asked to recall a list of 10 words at various intervals.

Researchers recorded immediate and delayed recall to generate memory scores from 0 to 20. They then divided respondents by those with or without hearing loss to assess the impact on both groups.

Studying the impact over 15 years, it was found that people using only traditional communications experienced steeper memory decline than participants who enriched their social activity online.

Also, 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, PhD, an associate professor of ageing and dementia care at the University of West London’s Geller Institute of Ageing and Memory.

“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,” Rafnsson 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.

“We can also see a positive impact among older people with hearing loss, who by making use of online tools such as email, may be better able to focus solely on the quality of an interaction to achieve those same cognitive benefits.

“With more and more older adults now using online communication so frequently, especially during the past year of global lockdowns, it poses the question as to what extent technology can help sustain relationships and overcome social isolation, and how that can also help maintain brain health.”

Along with Rafnsson, the paper was co-authored by Asri Maharani, MD, PhD, from the Division of Nursing, Midwifery & Social Work at the University of Manchester, and Gindo Tampubolon, PhD, from the University of Manchester’s Global Development Institute and Manchester Institute for Collaborative Research on Ageing.


The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed publication of The Gerontological Society of America (GSA), the nation's oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education, and practice in the field of aging. The principal mission of the Society — and its 5,500+ members — is to advance the study of aging and disseminate information among scientists, decision makers, and the general public. GSA’s structure also includes a policy institute, the National Academy on an Aging Society.

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