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UA study: Facebook use gives seniors a cognitive boost

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UA study: Facebook use gives seniors a cognitive boost

A preliminary study by a University of Arizona graduate student suggests that seniors who use Facebook can experience up to a 25 percent increase in cognitive ability, specifically "updating."

Janelle Wohltmann is conducting the study for her Ph.D. dissertation. The focus of her research in psychology is quality of life for older adults.  

Updating is a component of executive function that allows people to monitor and evaluate what is in their attention span, Wohltmann said.

"Our lab has done a lot of work about how the brain changes as we get older," Wohltmann said. "There is this 'use it or loose it' hypothesis." 

Wohltmann presented her findings at the International Neuropsychological Society annual meeting in Hawaii earlier in February. 

“I had a fun time because people would walk by and look at the title on my poster and crack a smile." Wohltmann said. "It is certainly a novel concept.”

One reason for the decline of cognitive function in seniors is partly contributed to decreased social interactions, Wohltmann said. 

Several factors could inhibit a senior's ability to interact in the community, including decreased mobility and physical disability, she said. 

"Facebook gives seniors a way to communicate without needing to leave home," said UA Psychology Department Director Elizabeth Glisky. "It could allow them to be independent for longer." 

Glisky helped Wohltmann design the study. Wohltmann also had the help of other psychology graduate students as well as undergraduate research assistants. 

 Wohltmann said that if she had to pick one person that really helped with the study, it would be the cognitive development lab manager, Cindy Woolzerton. 

"I tried to convince my grandma to get on Facebook so that she could receive those cognitive benefits," Woolzerton said. 

The idea to do a study with Facebook and seniors stemmed from two concepts from previous psychological research: 

  • Learning a new skill can improve cognitive ability
  • Staying socially connected can improve cognitive ability

Wohltmann combined these two ideas by using seniors who lived alone and who only used Facebook less than once a month. 

"The original plan was to use seniors who had never used Facebook before," Wohltmann said. "We had to change the criteria to less than once a month because so many seniors actually had Facebook accounts, they just weren't using them regularly." 

Facebook was chosen as the social media outlet because of the large number of people who have accounts, she said.

There were 42 seniors who participated in the study: 30 women and 12 men, aged 65-91. The average age of the participants was 79.

Wohltmann has not yet analyzed the data to see if there were any differences in the improvements among men and women who participated in the study. 

Wohltmann measured cognitive ability by using pre and post tests composed of traditional neuropsychological tests as well as newer tests established by the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute that look specifically at executive function. That institute also provided funding for Wohltmann's study. 

The 42 participants were divided into three groups of 14. One group was taught how to use Facebook and were asked to post at least once a week. 

The other two groups were used as control groups. One was taught how to use, an online diary site with no ability for interaction between users, while the other was "wait-listed" and received to training or posting requirements.

"I don't think Facebook is for everybody, but I do believe it is a way to keep your brain engaged." Wohltmann said. 

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