A recent study in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that more frequent late-life cognitive activity may maintain and improve decision making among older persons.1 These are helpful findings from a public health perspective. In this article, we extend the implications of this study by noting the ubiquity and complexity of digital decision making in a time of pandemic. We then consider the impacts of these digital services on late-life cognitive activity and propose digital safety strategies for clinicians, researchers, public health practitioners, and regulators.

Digital safety strategies are considered approaches to optimize digital decision making and protect late-life users of digital technologies. In the accompanying table online, we provide an overview of this topic.

We recently reviewed the effects of computers, the internet, and social media on the daily decision making of people living with brain health conditions.2 Teaching older adults to use social media has been found to significantly improve executive functioning as measured by their inhibitory control and overall cognition.3 Social media use among older adults may also positively boost health by increasing social connectedness, which is critical with social and physical distancing imposed by COVID-19.

Social media may also have adverse brain health affects for older adults. Loneliness and social isolation in older adults can dramatically alter cognitive performance, decision making, and emotional regulation.4 Lonely older adults have more difficulty maintaining vigilance and self-regulating, demonstrate a heightened awareness of social threats, and pay greater attention to negative social stimuli.2

These findings—combined with social media algorithms that are intended to keep users on the platforms as long as possible—may help explain recent reports showing that individuals older than age 65 are seven times more likely to share and disseminate fake news domains on social media than are their younger counterparts.5 These findings may have societal implications, notably with the increased numbers of aging adults on social media and the fact that political and policy decisions are now often shaped by information that is publicly available on these platforms.

Read more in Today’s Geriatric Medicine.

Published February 2021