Cognition declines as we get older, as does health literacy. The Institute of Medicine defines the latter as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” The Internet, for better or (usually) worse, is a prime way to stay up to date on said information. So it’s no wonder a new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found consistent Internet use among older adults improves literacy.

Researchers from the University College of London analyzed data from the ongoing English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, which aims to “collect longitudinal multidisciplinary data from a representative sample of the English population aged 50 and older.” Participants receive computer-assisted, in-person interviews every four years and a nurse-conducted health assessment (known as a wave). The present study measures wave two and five during the interview portion. As part of this portion, participants were asked four questions about a fictitious medicine label similar to one on a bottle of aspirin.

In addition to the interview, participants completed a questionnaire about their Internet use — never users, intermittent users, consistent users — and their social engagement, such as leisure and cultural activities requiring diverse cognitive abilities. For example, a leisure activity could be going to the gym or exercise class, while a cultural activity could be a trip to the cinema, art gallery, or theater. And the results showed older adults who consistently engaged the Internet and cultural activities were greater protected against cognitive impairment.

“Internet use and engagement in various social activities, in particular cultural activities, appear to help older adults maintain the literacy skills required to self-manage health,” researchers wrote. “These factors appeared to act in an additive fashion, with the more the better for maintaining literacy skills.”

Researchers added health literacy is fluid over time; the loss of such skills isn’t something you have to deal with. Though researchers admitted understanding a medicine label isn’t representative of the diverse situations in which health literacy applies. Further studies need to be done with additional cognitive, technological, and social measures, as well as possibly incorporate a cognitive kind-of intervention for the never users.

Still, some time online and tickets to a show for a better brain? Not a bad gig at all. “As an early longitudinal investigation in this area, our study should bring about several new hypotheses about the social and cognitive processes that influence the dynamics of life at older ages, and how they may be modified,” researchers concluded.

Source: Kobayashi LC, Wardle J, von Wagner C. J. Internet use, social engagement and health literacy decline during ageing in a longitudinal cohort of older English adults. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2014.