Less time spent on the computer in later life could be an early sign of cognitive decline, according to recent research from Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).

The paper, titled Less Daily Computer Use is Related to Smaller Hippocampal Volumes in Cognitively Intact Elderly [PDF], explains that infrequent computer use could mark reduced cognitive ability among older adults.

The hippocampus – a small area of the brain with a key role in memory function – can be used to pick up early warning signs, or biomarkers, of dementia. A smaller hippocampus can be indicative of early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, which involved 27 ‘cognitively-healthy’, dementia-free adults aged 65 or older, used MRI scans to measure the volume of the hippocampus. The researchers also collected data on computer use among participants via mouse movement detection software.

The team followed the volunteer group in Portland for a nine-year period, with embedded sensor technology monitoring their mobility, sleep, socialisation, digital activities and medication intake.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 15.53.10The research results showed that an additional hour of computer use each day was linked to a 0.025% larger hippocampal volume. The scientists thus concluded that lower computer usage could be used to predict cognitive decline.

‘Less daily computer use is associated with smaller brain volume in regions that are integral to memory function and known to be involved early with Alzheimer’s pathology and conversion to dementia,’ the authors wrote. ‘Continuous monitoring of daily computer use may detect signs of preclinical neurodegeneration in older individuals at risk for dementia.’

A causative relationship has not been ruled out, with research lead Lisa Silbert detailing: ‘Successful computer use likely requires the ability to effectively call upon multiple cognitive domains, including executive function, attention, and memory.’

According to the paper, the OHSU team will continue to monitor the study participants and analyse the development of their cognitive abilities over the coming years.