Feb. 22, 2013 at 3:18 PM ET
Older adults may get a mental boost from using Facebook, early results from a small study suggest.
During the study, 42 adults, ages 68 to 91, who were not familiar with the social networking site were divided into three groups: one group was trained to use Facebook and post once a day; one group was trained to use an online diary site and create short diary entries visible only to themselves; and one group received no training on either site.
Participants also completed a battery of cognitive tests before and after their training.
After eight weeks, people in the Facebook group performed 25 percent better than they did at the study's start on a task that measured their ability to focus on relevant information while a stream of new information is presented — a mental process the researchers refer to as "updating." People in the other two groups didn't improve in their updating ability.
However, both the Facebook group and the online diary group showed improvements in how quickly they were able to process information compared to the group that did not learn to use a new site.
"To me this suggests that just learning and using one of these two websites provided a boost for how quickly people process information," said study researcher Janelle Wohltmann, a graduate student in the University of Arizona department of psychology.
The findings are preliminary, and Wohltmann is still analyzing the results to determine if there are any more differences between the groups. Larger studies will also need to be conducted to confirm the results.
Wohltmann hopes to find out why Facebook, but not the online diary site, improved people's updating ability.
She speculates that Facebook's format, which shows updates from both the user and his or her friends, may play a role.
"In these 'mental updating' tasks, participants are being asked to continuously focus on only the most relevant information, and to forget other pieces of information as they become irrelevant. When you view the news feed in Facebook, new information is continuously popping up from your Facebook friends," while the online diary site only shows new information that you write, Wohltmann said. "I wonder if perhaps the fact that you are constantly filtering through new pieces of information while viewing Facebook may have something to do with it," she added.
For people who don't want to join Facebook, other tasks may have similar effects on brain function, Wohltmann said.
Studies suggest that "staying mentally, physically and socially active in older age helps maintain or boost cognitive function," Wohltmann said. Learning new activities, volunteering or exercising are some ways to stay active, she noted.
The findings were presented this month at the annual meeting of the International Neuropsychological Society in Hawaii.Related:
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