Older adults who use the Internet are more likely to participate in screening for colorectal cancer, be active, eat healthily, and smoke less, compared to their unplugged friends.
So says a new study in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention.
Between 2002 and 2011 researchers collected survey data on Internet usage for a cohort of men and women age 50 and older. Year 2011 includes data on breast and colon screening, fruit and vegetable consumption, exercise and smoking, all predictors of a cancer diagnosis.
Of more than 5,000 survey respondents, 41 percent claimed not to use the Internet, 38 percent reported intermittent use and 20 percent used it consistently.
Consistent users reported more frequent screening, weekly exercise and five daily servings of fruit and vegetables than never users. They were also less likely to smoke.
“We didn’t expect the connection and it is not easy to explain,” says lead author Dr. Christian von Wagner, an epidemiologist at University College London.
Some earlier research had linked Internet use to less cognitive decline in old age and the jury is still out on whether the Internet can actually be used as a tool for health, he said.
“Our study is unique in the sense that it is the first to show a general association between Internet use and health behavior,” he said.
In the study, consistent Internet users were younger, whiter, more educated and more often male.
Perhaps the wealth of health information on the Internet leads users to live healthier lives. But it could work the other way, i.e. people interested in cancer screenings and the like go on the Internet to find out more.
Which comes first, health or the Internet? As of now, we can’t say.
Intriguingly, researchers found a dose-response relationship between the two – the more a person used the Internet, the more he tried out cancer-preventive behaviors.
The economic cost of overzealous screening is substantial to say the least, but not the main concern. Too much screening has been shown to increase the number of false positives, which causes unnecessary anxiety and sometimes even surgery.
Is all this a moot point anyway? The Internet is everywhere now, right?
Actually, according to these results, a large number of older adults (at least in England) still don’t use the Internet.
“The main implication for population health is the social gradient of Internet use, which means that specific subgroups – such as people with little education, less income and older age – are significantly less likely to use the Internet,” von Wagner said.
As developers create more and more web-based interventions, especially for older adults, they should keep in mind that many people in the target population cannot or will not access their products. Though those older adults using the Internet may see some real health benefits, roughly 40 percent aren’t using the Internet and won’t see any benefit at all.