Facebook can give seniors a cognitive boost and help them stay connected with their loved ones.

Think Facebook is a waste of time? Your grandma begs to differ.

By logging on, she’s opening herself up to a new world of social interaction and community engagement—and not just through FarmVille. Researchers at the University of Arizona have found that the social media site isn’t just for uploading party photos and killing time. Facebook also boosts the cognitive abilities of older people and provides them with a stronger connection to their loved ones.

“The idea evolved from two bodies of research,” said Betty Glisky, head of the department of psychology at the U of A. “One, there is evidence to suggest that staying more cognitively engaged—learning new skills, not just becoming a couch potato when you retire but staying active—leads to better cognitive performance. It’s kind of this ‘use it or lose it’ hypothesis.”

Facebook brings people closer together, which is especially important for seniors who face limitations—physical, financial, or temporal—that keep them from reaching out to others. Online engagement can help negate the loneliness and isolation that sometimes come with aging.

“There’s also a large body of literature showing that people who are more socially engaged are less lonely, have more social support, are more socially integrated, and are also doing better cognitively in older age,” Glisky said.

Glisky’s preliminary research was shared this month at the International Neuropsychological Society’s Annual Meeting in Hawaii.

In a study comparing older adults who used Facebook to those who used an online blogging platform to those who did not use either, those who used Facebook came out on top.

The adults who learned to use Facebook performed about 25 percent better on tasks that measured their cognitive abilities. They were also better able to do “updating,” a psychological term meaning that they could quickly add to or recall parts of their working memory as needed. Those who had used the private online diary site Penzu or who had not used Facebook at all saw no such cognitive gains.

The community engagement that Facebook fosters largely accounts for the users’ success in the trial.

“The big difference between the online diary and Facebook is that when you create a diary entry, you create the entry, you save it, and that’s all you see, but if you’re on Facebook, several people are posting new things, so new information is constantly getting posted,” Glisky said.

Researcher Janelle Wohltmann of the U of A psychology department adds: “For this study we asked participants to use Facebook to only connect with other research participants (the small group of people they learned to use Facebook with) and people routinely commented that their favorite part of the study was getting to know the other research participants and learning new pieces of information from them.”

When face-to-face interaction isn’t possible, Facebook is a viable option for older people to stay connected with family and friends and to be updated about important milestones, such as weddings and funerals.

Social media can rarely take the place of in-person communication, but it does a fine job of keeping people busy and engaged in interpersonal relationships, no matter the distance. Even a status update or friendly “hello” post on a friend’s wall can make older people feel that they are being heard.

And social media users don’t have to stop at conversations with friends and family. Social media platforms could also open the door to improved patient-physician communication.

Facebook, and all other forms of social media, are often targeted toward young people, but it need not be that way. Judging by the success of participants in this study, social networks could become the key to maintaining seniors’ well-being.

Social networking is a form of communication that is accessible to everyone and can be picked up easily. Older people just need to be taught how, and perhaps convinced to try it.

“Participants were hesitant to use Facebook because they were concerned about privacy and security, they weren’t really sure what the point was, and they thought it might take up too much time,” Wohltmann said. “There were many people who decided not to participate in the study for some of these reasons.”

But, she added, “One of the take-home messages could be that learning how to use Facebook is a way to build what we call cognitive reserve, to help protect against and stave off cognitive decline due to normal age-related changes in brain function.”

Using Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social media sites may be second nature to you, but they can be intimidating for someone who has never given them a chance. Set your loved one up with an account and guide him or her through the steps to communicate effectively on his or her chosen platform.

Also, make sure grandpa or grandma knows the basics of online security.

“It’s important to understand and know about some of the aspects of Facebook that people have concerns about, like how to keep your profile secure,” Wohltmann said. “So, I wouldn’t suggest to anyone to get out and get Granny online right away, unless you or somebody else can provide the proper education and support to that person so that they can use it in a safe way.”