The combined world prevalence of age-associated cognitive impairment and cognitive disorders stands at 24 million individuals — and 4.6 million new cases are diagnosed annually. The costs in human suffering and the financial costs of caring for victims of age-related dementia are a staggering $315 billion annually, Alzheimer's Disease International estimated last year.
Signs of the disability can manifest as early as age 40, according to Dr. Gary Small, director of the University of California, Los Angeles' Center on Aging. "That's when you begin to see a shrinking of the brain and a gradual loss of function," Small said.
If only there was some way to tone the brain to combat that decline. What would you Google to find such a regimen? How about Google itself?
"Because Internet use has become such a prevalent activity, we decided to study its effects on cognition," Small said.
In recent years, he continued, "A great deal of effort has gone into finding ways to exercise the aging brain" to try to offset some of these losses. He now believes the Internet may provide a well-equipped workout room for the brain.
Small led a study team at UCLA working with 24 neurologically normal research volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76. Half of the participants were experienced in searching the Internet, and half had little background in the workings of the Web.
They performed two types of tasks, one requiring simple reading and the other requiring Web searches. While performing these tasks, the volunteers were monitored using a sophisticated brain scan — functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI — which could reveal subtle brain-circuitry changes experienced while they worked.
During the book-reading sessions, all study participants showed similar levels of activity in the temporal, parietal, occipital and other regions of the brain, which control language, reading, memory and visual abilities.
However, when faced with the Internet-searching tasks, results for the two groups diverged sharply. While both the experienced and the inexperienced volunteers showed activity in the brain regions activated during reading, those with prior Internet experience also registered activity in the brain areas that control such higher functions as decision making and complex reasoning.
"Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading — but only in those with prior Internet experience," Small said. Veteran Web warriors showed a twofold increase in brain activation compared with newbies.
The Internet's information wonderland — compared with the linear experience of reading — requires that Web visitors continually make decisions about what to click on, which in turn fires up important cognitive circuits.
"A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older," Small said.
He suggested that lag in brain activation for less experienced users could follow from them not having a handle on the best way to find things on the Internet — their brain hasn't built the pathways to greater knowledge yet.
"With more time on the Internet, they may demonstrate the same brain activation patterns as the more experienced group," he said. Results of the study will appear in an upcoming edition of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.
Meanwhile, Small — whose published output includes consumer titles like The Memory Bible, The Memory Prescription and The Longevity Bible — is offering his own regimen for brain fitness.
In his just-published book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, Small discusses the relationship between Internet use and cognition, along with what he calls the "evolutionary changes" in brain wiring wrought by the digital revolution.
The book, he says, offers balanced strategies that people of all ages can employ to take advantage of digital technology both to gather information and to exercise the brain, while avoiding information overload and social isolation.
Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.