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You Would Never Think This Habit Could Sharpen Your Brain, But Science Is Saying Yes

A new study finds this unsuspecting habit is actually good for cognition and memory among older adults.
FACT CHECKED BY Faye Brennan

Losing a cognitive step or two as we grow older is unavoidable to a certain extent. In fact, most scientists agree the average adult's thinking skills and brain speed peak around the age of 30. After that, a subtle—albeit undeniable—decline begins.

While it's hard to read all that and feel anything but depressed, the good news is there are plenty of ways to keep your mind fresh, active, and feeling young well past middle age. One of the best ways to promote a sharp memory and strong mind in old age is exercise. Plenty of research has found that when we exercise, our brains benefit just as much as our bodies.

Additionally, regularly eating healthy foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts, and seafood can offer a degree of cognitive protection. On an even broader level, simply staying busy, in general, can go a long way toward delaying and preventing mental decline. Case in point: This study published in SSM – Population Health found that delaying retirement is associated with robust thinking skills in old age.

If you're on the lookout for more ways to keep your mind strong at any age, the findings of a fascinating new study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization will be of interest to you. Keep reading to learn more about this surprising way to boost your cognitive function as you age. And for more, check out the 3 Major Secrets to Living to 99, According to Betty White.

Going online is linked to stronger cognition

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While it's probably a good idea for many younger people to log off their computers and phones now and then, this new study found that post-retirement internet usage among older adults is indeed associated with strong cognition.

More than 2,000 retired adults living all over Europe were assessed for this project, and those who reported spending more time online scored higher on a series of cognitive tests.

"Our results reveal that using the internet, post-retirement, leads to a marked reduction in the rate of cognitive decline," says study co-author Dr. Vincent O'Sullivan, from Lancaster University Management School.

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The surprising proof

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A total of 2,105 individuals living in various countries including Spain, Germany, Sweden, Italy, France, and Austria who had been retired since 2004 underwent cognitive tests in 2013 and then again in 2015. More specifically, those tests focused on recalling a list of 10 words both immediately after hearing them and then again after a full 10 minutes had passed.

On average, retirees who used the internet were able to recall 1.22 more words than non-internet users.

Related: Popular Foods That May Improve Your Brain Health

More benefits for women?

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While study participants who reported using the internet tended to be male, educated, younger, and retired for a shorter period than others in the research, the study authors actually report that older female adults appear to reap even more cognitive benefits from the internet than retired men.

"Interestingly, this protective effect was found to be most significant amongst women, with female retirees who regularly surfed the internet able to recall 2.37 more words compared to women who didn't go online," Dr. O'Sullivan explains. "The results were also consistent among men, with retired internet users able to recall 0.94 more words than men with similar characteristics who didn't use the internet."

Additionally, working in a field or industry where computer/internet use is normal or expected was also found to correlate with using the internet post-retirement.

"We also found that retirees who used computers in their jobs before retirement were more likely to keep using computers once they retired, and hence, had better cognitive function," Dr. O'Sullivan adds.

The research team is quick to clarify, however, that using the internet before retirement is not linked to stronger thinking skills or memory. Using a computer while still working simply makes an individual more likely to keep on using the internet after retirement, which then appears to promote strong cognition.

"We were able to discern that pre-retirement computer usage does not directly influence post-retirement cognitive decline, and we ensured our results referred only to post-retirement internet usage," notes study co-author Likun Mao, formerly a Ph.D. student at Lancaster but now at Trinity College Dublin.

Related: The #1 Best Supplement for Your Brain, According to a Doctor

Possible explanations

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As far as why using the internet helps keep the mind strong when you're older, the research team can't say for sure. Still, study co-author Professor Colin Green, of the Norwegian University Science and Technology, theorizes that these findings are likely due to the mental stimulation that inevitably comes with browsing online.

He names online shopping, interacting with friends, families, and strangers on social media, plus going online for info on social events as ways the internet can both improve older adults' quality of life and keep their minds busy.

For more, check out The One Thing You May Need to Grow Muscles As You Age, New Study Says.

John Anderer
John Anderer is a writer who specializes in science, health, and lifestyle topics. Read more