Spending time on Facebook has been shown to reduce stress levels, slow down heart rates and -- generally speaking -- just simply relax people. Now new research suggests that learning to use Facebook may have an additional benefit for adults over 65: a sharpening of mental abilities.
Janelle Wohltmann, a graduate student in the University of Arizona department of psychology, set out to see whether teaching older adults to use the popular social networking site could give a boost to their cognitive performance and make them feel more socially connected.
Her preliminary findings, which she shared this month at the International Neuropsychological Society Annual Meeting in Hawaii, reveal that older adults, after learning to use Facebook, performed about 25 percent better on memory tasks.
During her study, Wohltmann helped train 14 older adults who had never before -- or who had rarely used -- Facebook so that they ultimately amassed new online friends while posting daily on the site. A second group of 14 non-Facebook using seniors was taught how to use an online diary site, Penzu.com, in which entries are kept private, with no social sharing component. They were asked to make at least one entry daily, of no more than three to five sentences to emulate the brevity of messages that Facebook users typically post.
The study's third group of 14 was told they were on a "wait-list" for Facebook training, which they never actually completed.
Prior to learning any new technologies, study participants, who ranged in age from 68 to 91, completed a series of questionnaires and neuropsychological tests measuring social variables, such as their levels of loneliness and social support, as well as their cognitive abilities. The assessments were performed again at the end of the study, eight weeks later.
In the follow-ups, those who had learned to use Facebook performed about 25 percent better than they did at the start of the study on tasks aimed at measuring various mental abilities. Meanwhile, there was no significant change in the performance of the other participants.
Wohltmann based the study on existing evidence about how learning new tasks can help older adults with overall cognitive function, as well as research suggesting a possible link between social connectedness and cognitive performance.
"The idea evolved from two bodies of research," she said in a press release. "One, there is evidence to suggest that staying more cognitively engaged -– learning new skills, not just becoming a couch potato when you retire but staying active -– leads to better cognitive performing. It's kind of this 'use it or lose it' hypothesis.
"There's also a large body of literature showing that people who are more socially engaged, are less lonely, have more social support and are more socially integrated are also doing better cognitively in older age," she said.
She told Huff/Post50 that further analysis is needed to determine whether using Facebook made participants feel less lonely or more socially connected.
"I also have not yet analyzed the data looking at the relationship between how many posts the participants made and the increases in cognitive function," she said.
Likewise, further analysis is needed to determine whether, or by how much, Facebook's social aspect contributed to improvements in cognitive performance. However, Wohltmann suspects that the complex nature of the Facebook interface, compared to the online diary site, was largely responsible for Facebook users' improved performance.
"The Facebook interface is actually quite complex. The big difference between the online diary and Facebook is that when you create a diary entry, you create the entry, you save it and that's all you see, versus if you're on Facebook, several people are posting new things, so new information is constantly getting posted," she said.
Participants in the study, who had an average age of 79, represent a demographic whose social media behavior has not been closely examined.
"Facebook is obviously a huge phenomenon in our culture," Wohltmann said. "There's starting to be more research coming out about how younger adults use Facebook and online social networking, but we really don’t know very much at all about older adults, and they actually are quite a large growing demographic on Facebook, so I think it's really important to do the research to find out."
One in three online seniors use a social networking site like Facebook, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
Wohltmann says she also sees Facebook as a potential alternative to some online games marketed to seniors to help boost mental acuity.
"Those games can be boring after a while, and this might be a new activity for people to learn that's more interesting and keeps them socially engaged," she said, adding that it can also help older adults stay connected with grandchildren and other family and friends.
Yet Wohltmann warns that Facebook may not be right for every older adult.
"One of the take-home messages could be that learning how to use Facebook is a way to build what we call cognitive reserve, to help protect against and stave off cognitive decline due to normal age-related changes in brain function. But there certainly are other ways to do this as well," she said.
"It's also important to understand and know about some of the aspects of Facebook that people have concerns about, like how to keep your profile secure," she added. "So I wouldn't suggest to anyone to get out and get Granny online right away, unless you or somebody else can provide the proper education and support to that person, so that they can use it in a safe way."
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