Facebook can give seniors a lot to 'like'

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Spending time with friends can help a senior stay mentally sharp. Spending time with Facebook friends may offer the same benefits.

Seniors who participated in a new University of Arizona study received a "boost in cognitive function" after they used Facebook. Most participants had never been Facebook users before they signed up for the study.

"There have not been many studies looking at older adults using Facebook," says Janelle Wohltmann, the study's lead researcher. Wohltmann found that after several weeks using Facebook, participants, who were between 68 and 91 years old, made gains in "mental updating" skills. "Because of the nature of Facebook, you are sharing things with other people and you are reading information from other people," she says. "There's continuously new pieces of information popping up."

Facebook, a free online social network, allows members to share personal news, photos, videos and other information with people in their network, known as "Facebook friends." They also can join online groups with others who share their interests.

Wohltmann notes that her study is ongoing. She next wants to see if Facebook can help socially isolated seniors feel more engaged. Her preliminary findings were presented at the International Neuropsychological Society annual meeting in Hawaii in February. She expects the study to be published later this year.

Not all study participants became Facebook enthusiasts. Some liked it, while others told Wohltmann it wasn't for them. "Most people still prefer face-to-face social interaction," she says. "But if you're in a position where that's not possible, it's a great opportunity to stay connected in the world and also feel as though you have something to contribute."

While there are some stimulating and fun things to do on Facebook, new users should be aware of privacy and safety concerns. Each participant in Wohltmann's study took six hours of classes on how to use Facebook before they were allowed to go online. "Think about Facebook as a series of interconnected bulletin boards," she says. "If you wouldn't post it [personal information] on a public bulletin board, don't post it on Facebook."

For a good primer on Facebook, go to facebook.com/safety. You can download Facebook's official security guide at bit.ly/facebook -securityguide. To access this 14-page booklet, follow the on-screen prompt to save it to your computer's hard drive and then use a PDF reader program, such as Adobe Acrobat, to open it.

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