A new study in the US suggests being active online may help stave off dementia.

The study found that regular internet use was linked with a halving of dementia risk, compared to those who didn't get online regularly. 

The researchers followed 18,154 adults aged between 50 to 65 for an average of 7.9 years. 

None of them had dementia at the start of the study but over time, 4.68% of those involved were diagnosed with dementia.

Although the study said that being online isn't proven to prevent dementia, online engagement helps to develop and maintain cognitive reserve which they say “can compensate for brain aging and reduce the risk of dementia”.

But people need to take research like this with a huge grain of salt

Dementia NZ’s Gary O'Neil says cognitive decline is caused by a whole range of factors. 

“So, you cannot say people might be better off due to increased internet usage. Well, what are their diets like? What sort of exercise regime have they got?”

O’Neil warns people should take research like this with a grain of salt.  

How common is dementia? 

Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s a term for several progressive neurological conditions that affect things like memory, decision-making and our ability to go about daily tasks.

Although the majority of people suffering from dementia are older, it's not uncommon to see younger people suffering too.

O’Neil says one in four people will eventually know someone or have experience with someone in their whānau with dementia. 

“It’s getting that common.” 

It’s estimated that 70,000 people in New Zealand are diagnosed with dementia, but there may be more who are undiagnosed, he says. 

Māori whānau need more support 

A study out of Middlemore Hospital shows Māori are diagnosed with dementia at a younger age than non-Māori. 

Māori are also more likely to shoulder the economic costs of caring for whānau members with dementia, according to health expert Dr Makarena Dudley.

“We know there are huge economic disparities for whānau because one of the major reasons is that, traditionally, Māori like to take care of their kaumātua,” Dudley says.

“We keep them at home rather than place them in-home residential care, and there are lots of burdens on whānau to carry those caregiving duties.”

Around 60% of Government funding for older people's health goes into aged residential care, but only 2.98% of Māori use that service

“So there's a huge disparity there,” Dudley says.

She says from talking with whānau Māori she understands that Māori are more accepting of dementia and any kind of illness.

“We just take it within our stride. The whānau kind of adapt, pool resources, and just get on with the job of looking after their kaumātua.”

What can we do to help our brain

To help reduce the risk of early onset dementia, O’Neil encourages people to have a healthy lifestyle - this includes not smoking, vaping or drinking as these substances kill brain cells.

He says it's especially hard here in New Zealand as we have a drinking culture.

Ultimately, O’Neil says, young people need to be more aware of their brain health. 

“We’re all working, trying to understand why our brains are reacting to our environments … I don’t think people are very aware of brain health - it’s the least understood part of our anatomy.”

O’Neil says we should work to remove the stigma around dementia and acknowledge it is more common than people realise. 

To get in touch with the author of this article, email Teahi@renews.co.nz

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