Closeup of woman texting on cell phone
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Smartphones  — friend or foe? It depends on whom you ask.

Recent studies on smartphone use have found that mobile technology either can contribute to cognitive impairment or help improve cognition.

A recent study from the Washington State University, published in the journal Current Alzheimer Research, found that the electronically generated electromagnetic fields, or EMFs, emitted from cell phones can cause Alzheimer’s disease, including potentially very early onset disease.

On the flip side, research out of the University of Missouri, Baylor University and the University of Texas, Austin, found that smartphones may be used to improve memory function in people living with dementia.

‘Digital dementia’

In the Washington State paper, Martin L. Pall, Ph.D., argued that EMF exposure from wireless communication devices rapidly increases intracellular calcium, which is believed to lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. He reported that EMF-induced changes to intracellular calcium levels have been proven in animal models.

“EMFs act via peak electric and time varying magnetic forces at a nanosecond time scale,” Pall said in a statement, adding that such peaks are produced by smartphones, Wi-Fi and smart meters. “Any of these may produce the ultimate nightmare — extremely early onset Alzheimer’s disease.”

Pall pointed to recent occupational exposure assessments that found that people with occupational EMF exposures have higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease. Some of those studies suggested that EMFs actually shorten the normal 25-year latency period of Alzheimer’s.

The age of onset of Alzheimer’s has decreased over the past 20 years, corresponding to large increases in wireless communication EMF exposures, according to Pall. 

“Very young people who are exposed to cell phone or Wi-Fi radiation for many hours per day may develop digital dementia,” a news release stated. 

In response, Pall recommended studies on brain markers of Alzheimer’s and MRI brain scans of young people who show signs of digital dementia, EMF exposure assessment for individuals aged 30 to 40 in whom early-onset Alzheimer’s has been diagnosed, and examinations for early signs of disease among individuals living near small cell antennae for a year or more.

“Findings from each of these studies should be shared with the general public so that everyone can take the steps necessary to reduce the incidence of early onset Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

An estimated 6.5 million Americans aged 65 or more years are living with Alzheimer’s, and 73% are aged 75 and older, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Approximately one in nine older adults aged 65 and older (10.7%) have received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The association estimates that by 2050, cases will grow to a projected 12.7 million.

The National Cancer Institute maintains that no link between electromagnetic field EMFs or radiofrequency radiation and cancer has been identified. Healthline noted that animal or cell model studies of EMF exposure are unreliable when applied to human health, but added that some research gives “tentative support” to EMFs causing symptoms including insomnia, headache, depression, fatigue, memory issues, nausea and irritability, among other symptoms.

Smartphone benefits

In a Journal of the American Geriatrics Society paper, researchers found that older adults living with dementia or mild cognitive disorders can learn smartphone-based memory strategies to improve memory function and independence.

The researchers noted that some people may be surprised at older adults’ acceptance of smartphone interventions. They attribute that reaction, however, to stereotyping and ageism.

“Known as the ‘digital divide,’ there is a pervasive view that most older adults dislike, and are unable to use, smartphone technology,” the study reads. “Times change.

“Given that smart technology can reduce prospective memory difficulties — as well as reduce social isolation, detect falls, monitor heart rhythms, and promote independence — it is time to discard stereotypes and train healthy older adults, persons with mild [Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias] and care partners how to optimally use smartphones to support functioning and enrich quality of life.”