Digital exclusion and functional dependence in older people: Findings from five longitudinal cohort studies

EClinicalMedicine. 2022 Oct 31:54:101708. doi: 10.1016/j.eclinm.2022.101708. eCollection 2022 Dec.


Background: Older people are more likely to be excluded from the digital world, and this has been linked to poor health outcomes. The extent and direction of the influence of digital exclusion on functional dependency is, however, not well understood. We aimed to investigate the association between digital exclusion and functional dependency among older adults from high-income countries (HICs) and low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

Methods: In this multicohort study, we pooled individual-level data from five longitudinal cohort studies that included nationally representative samples of older adults across 23 countries, including the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA), the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), the China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study (CHARLS), and the Mexican Health and Aging Study (MHAS). The digital exclusion was recorded as an absence from internet use by self-reported. We assessed basic activities of daily living (BADL) and instrumental activities of daily living (IADL), and we used interval-of-need methods to categorize the functional dependency. We applied generalized estimating equations models fitting Poisson model to investigate the association of digital exclusion with difficulties in BADL or IADL and functional dependency, adjusting for the causal-directed-acyclic-graph (DAG) minimal sufficient adjustment set (MSAS), including gender, age level, labour force status, education, household wealth level, marital status, and co-residence with children.

Findings: We included 108,621 participants recruited between 2010 and 2018 with a median follow-up of 3 phrases. Digital exclusion in older adults varied across countries, ranging from 23.8% in Denmark (SHARE) to 96.9% in China (CHARLS). According to the crude model, digital exclusion was significantly associated with functional dependency. In the MSAS-adjusted model, those associations remained statistically significant: HRS (incidence rate ratio [IRR] = 1.40, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.34-1.48 for BADL; 1.71 [1.61-1.82] for IADL), ELSA (1.31 [1.22-1.40] in BADL and 1.37 [1.28-1.46] in IADL), SHARE (1.69 [1.61-1.78] in BADL and 1.70 [1.63-1.78] in IADL), CHARLS (2.15 [1.73-2.67] in BADL and 2.59 [2.06-3.25] in IADL), and MHAS (1.15 [1.09-1.21] in BADL and 1.17 [1.09-1.25] in IADL). In the subgroup analyses, the associations were more pronounced in the oldest-old (aged ≥ 80 years old).

Interpretation: There is a substantial proportion of older adults who are excluded from the Internet, especially those in LMIC. Older people excluded from the Internet regardless of whether they live in HICs or LMICs are more likely to develop functional dependency. It should be made a priority to remove barriers to Internet access in order to assist older people in maintaining their independence and, consequently, to reduce the care burden associated with the ageing population worldwide.

Funding: The National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 71904004).

Keywords: Basic activities of daily living; Digital exclusion; Functional dependency; Instrumental activities of daily living; Older adults.