Use It, Don’t Lose It

 Use It, Don’t Lose It

By Peter Galvin, MD

Here in the U.S., it is estimated that at least 7 million people older than 65 years have dementia, and with the country growing older, that number is expected to rise. But memory impairment doesn’t just affect our older citizens. There is a new type of dementia affecting people younger than 40. It’s called digital dementia, and millions of unsuspecting, young Americans are at risk. It is an emerging major health epidemic, and it occurs when one part of the brain is overstimulated while another part is understimulated. When we mindlessly use digital devices, the frontal lobe, which is responsible for higher-level executive functions, gets little, to any, use, while the occipital lobe, the visual processing area at the back of the brain, gets bombarded with sensory input. Slouched over and spaced-out people, both young and old, are abusing their brains day after day.

Preteens and teens are particularly at risk for two reasons. Firstly, 8- to 12-year-olds spend an average of 4.7 hours per day scrolling their lives away. That’s about 70 days a year. Secondly, the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for planning and decision-making, doesn’t fully develop until about age 25. During scrolling time, both the prefrontal cortex and the temporal lobe, responsible for memory, are idle. Research has shown that areas of the brain that are not used for prolonged periods of time tend to not fully develop. This is why digital dementia impedes both short-term and long-term memory. Research has also shown that excessive screen time during brain development increases the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia later in life. Excessive screen time is also linked to digital addiction, which fuels digital dementia and is associated with shrinkage of the brain’s gray matter. Gray matter is where emotions, memories, and movement originate. White matter facilitates communication between areas of gray matter, but if there is little gray matter, there’s nothing to communicate.

Gurwinder Bhogal, a British-Indian writer, recently noted that not only is “gray matter shrinkage in smartphone-addicted individuals” a growing problem, but also the Western average IQ is declining – rapidly. There appears to be an inverse relationship between rising technology and declining IQs and is attributable to digital addiction, lead exposure, and prolonged Covid-associated lockdowns. It is the Flynn effect in reverse. Named after the renowned intelligence researcher James R. Flynn, who passed away in 2020, the Flynn effect refers to an upward shift in IQ test scores across generations. Only now the upward trend has turned into a nosedive. As Mr. Bhogal noted, the IQ decline is “at least partly the result of technology making the attainment of satisfaction increasingly effortless, so that we spend ever more of our time in a passive, vegetative state.” In other words, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” “It,” of course, refers to the brain.

The country is getting older, fatter, sicker, and dumber. The film “Idiocracy” wasn’t a parody; it was a prophecy. We are at risk of becoming a nation of obese zombies, and this is especially true of our young children, who don’t seem capable of walking or bike-riding without being glued to their cellphones. Technology has consumed our minds and souls; can we get either of them back?

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