Senior citizens’ use of computers and mobile phones might shave 10 years off their mental age

Frustrating but rewarding.
Frustrating but rewarding.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Everyone fears a decline in mental ability as they age. However, if you are an avid user of technology, that decline could be delayed.

A new study, published in the journal Intelligence, found that the use of computers and mobile phones could partly explain why senior citizens today appears to be four to eight years younger, cognitively speaking, than a similar population less than a decade ago. The positive effect stands up even after controlling for factors such as education, gender, and health.

To arrive at this conclusion, Valeria Bordone of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and her colleagues used data collected by cohorts in England and Germany of those over the age of 50. Some 2,000 people were tested in 2006 and another 3,000 were tested in 2012.

“We know that IQ (intelligence quotient) has been increasing for many decades,” Bordone told Quartz. This sustained increase in IQ is called the Flynn effect, and it has been observed since the 1930s. The explanation for the effect is that, over this period, the world has improved access to better education, nutrition, and healthcare for a much wider population. These small but sustained improvements have enabled people to involve themselves in more mentally stimulating activities, improve their cognitive abilities, and thus score better on IQ tests.

IQ, however, is a limited measure. “Hence, our tests covered a broader range of cognitive skills,” Bordone told Quartz.

These included symbol-digit test which measure the ability to correlate two disparate objects (and thus checks raw cognitive functions), the animal-naming test (name as many in less than one minute) which measures verbal fluency, and recall test which measures fluid intelligence (that which is used to solve problems).

Across all these skills, those nearer the age of 60 did far better in 2012 than those of similar age tested in 2006. Thus, Bordone’s study shows improvements in cognition that are both wider and more significant.

“In many cases 52-year-olds from 2006 had the same score as 60-year-olds from 2012,” she told Quartz. “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.”

Bordone warns that currently her results show only a correlation—greater use of technology is associated with better mental abilities. Yet, she believes technology use could explain the correlation because it creates rewarding, complex challenges that help boost cognitive skills. (There was, indeed, a lot of satisfaction evident when my grandmother mastered WhatsApp.)

There could be other explanations for Bordone’s surprising results. For instance, previous studies have shown that having a more educated younger population forces the older population to develop new cognitive skills later in life. So, if nothing else, Bordone’s results are another reason why we must not believe in the poorly-backed claim that smartphones are making us dumb.