Imagine yourself meeting a brilliant young colleague in a conference. You ask for his email address, hoping to connect. He smiles and says, “I don’t have email.”

That just might be what science fiction sounds like in the future, if not today. It is barely realistic, what with many professionals hailing WiFi as a major part of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

They say that in jest, of course. However, what makes it funny is its basis in reality – going online is modern man’s newest “high”.

Although potentially addictive, the internet does provide us with easy access to news and information. It is therefore quite a paradox that the use of digital technology meant to add to our knowledge might actually be impairing our brain function.

Digital technology and the brain

Dr. Gary Small, past president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, called the phenomenon “digital dementia” during his lecture in the Philippines, the last of three countries that were part of his Wellness Tour in the Asia-Pacific region.

He clarified that it was a phrase meant to highlight the detrimental effects of gadgets and the internet on cognitive processes. Digital dementia is unlike real dementia because smartphone or internet use does not lead to persistent brain disease – at least, there is no proof yet that it does.

In the past, researchers clamored to (dis)prove that cellphone radiation caused brain tumors. The focus has since then shifted towards the danger that gadgets pose on brain activity and function.

In a small study involving 47 participants, those exposed to 50 minutes of cellphone radiofrequency had increased glucose metabolism in the brain, specifically in the regions near the cellphone antenna, based on positron emission tomography readings. However, another study revealed a decrease, not an increase, in glucose metabolism.

Students who didn’t play video games identified happy faces faster than those who did, based on a 2007 study. The participants were asked to look at neutral faces and pinpoint the moment they transformed into happy (or angry) faces, something they did faster if they hadn’t just played video games.

Another study shared a similar finding: Young students in a nature camp who did not have access to gadgets and televisions recognized nonverbal cues better than their peers who did.

Chicken-and-egg situation

Low grades in school, especially in one’s early years, were associated with an increased dementia risk, according to a 2016 study involving 400 participants. This, among other studies, may have contributed to the theory that mental stimulation can delay the onset of brain aging.

“Memory training can improve memory quickly and maintain [mental] performance for up to five years or more,” says Dr. Small. “Some video games can subtract decades from your brain age. Surgeons who play video games make fewer mistakes on the operating table.”

Acknowledging the association between a lower dementia risk and good grades or mental exercises is one thing. Concluding that an increased risk for dementia is the result of poor performance in either academics or games, not the other way around, is another.

Businesses have been built around the supposition that mental activity can help prevent or at least stall dementia, advocating brain exercises and games as tools against brain aging. We have yet to provide solid evidence, however, that doing mental games to build a sharper memory today – or the next five years for that matter – means dementia won’t arrive as scheduled.

Geriatric medicine: relatively young

Dr. Roy Cuison, vice president of the Philippine College of Geriatric Medicine, reminds that geriatric medicine is a relatively young field and that our conclusions about brain aging are probably premature.

“There are two centenarians in the Philippines, one of whom is Pedro Samuya who died in 2016,” Dr. Cuison shares. “He was 107 years. According to daughter, he lived a simple life in an area with no pollution, ate vegetables and a lot of root crops, did not engage in stressful activities, and had a strong faith in God.

“The other centenarian, Caplis Fabros who died in 2012, was 111 years. He ate without prohibition. He drank like a fish, chewed nga nga (betel nut), and smoked for 90 years, yet outlived the centenarian who lived a healthy lifestyle. That puts observational studies into perspective.”

Dr. Cuison proves a strong point: It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly is responsible in keeping us mentally competent in our elderly years. “We don't fully understand influences of family, environment, social interaction, and nutrition in mental decline as we grow old.”

It was a cautionary tale: As health professionals, we have yet to crack the secret code of a long life and a mind that stays forever young.

Stanford University Center on Longevity, together with Max Planck Institute for Human Development, released a consensus in 2014 saying that we should “not expect that cognitively challenging activities will work like one-shot treatments or vaccines”. The statement, signed by 70 experts in neurology and psychiatry, warns, “[There] is little evidence that you can do something once (or even for a concentrated period) and be inoculated against the effects of aging in an enduring way. In all likelihood, gains won’t last long after you stop the challenge.”

Sorry, folks, but it is too early to assume that mental games are truly a game changer. We have yet to understand the mysteries of the brain by doing more research and listening to what solid evidence tells us.

Until we have all the proof we need about what contributes to brain aging, however, we cannot shrug off the possibility that digital technology, while providing information that will hopefully make us smarter, just might be making us dumber in the process. We may not know for sure if memory games do prevent brain aging, but remembering to spend less time glued to our TV screens and cellphones is definitely one mental exercise we can all benefit from.

About the author:
Stef dela Cruz, MD is a columnist and blogger. She is the only doctor to receive the 2013 Health Media Award from the Department of Health. Her health blog is a 2015 Philippine Blogging Awards Hall-of-Famer. Connect with her (@StefdelaCruzMD) on Twitter or Instagram. You can also follow her on Facebook.