Going Online with Anti-Cancer Behaviors

Cancer preventive behaviors were higher in older Internet users than nonusers

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The Internet is an increasingly popular source for health and wellness information. And while being online offers a rich and ongoing supply of information, researchers wanted to know if the Internet helped change behaviors.

According to a new study, older individuals who consistently used the Internet engaged in more cancer preventive behaviors than those who didn’t go online.

The Internet users were more likely to have colorectal cancer screenings, be physically active, eat a healthy diet and not smoke than folks who weren’t online, the researchers found.

"Discuss health information you find online with your doctor."

Christian von Wagner, PhD, senior lecturer in behavioral research in early diagnosis of cancer at the University College London, United Kingdom, led this investigation to evaluate associations between Internet use and healthy, anti-cancer behaviors in older adults.

The study involved 5,943 people, aged 50 and older, who were surveyed in five waves of the of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging between 2002 and 2011.

Internet use was recorded in each wave.

Of the respondents, 41.4 percent did not use the Internet, 38.3 percent reported using it in one to three waves (intermittent users) and 20.3 percent used it in all waves (consistent users).

Breast and colorectal screening, fruit and vegetable consumption, physical activity and smoking were recorded at wave 5.

The strongest association between Internet use and cancer preventive behaviors was seen in colorectal cancer screening. Among consistent Internet users, 73 percent reported having colorectal cancer screening, compared to 52 percent of individuals who had never been online.

Internet use did not impact breast cancer screening, which was high among both never users (94 percent) and consistent users (97.5 percent).

Compared to folks who did not use the Internet, people who were consistently online reported more physical activity — 88 percent versus 59 percent.

The study revealed that consistent Internet users were also 24 percent more likely to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day and 44 percent less likely to be current smokers compared to individuals who were never online.

“The interesting aspect here is a dose-response relationship between internet use and cancer preventive-behaviors: Intermittent users were more likely to have cancer-preventive behaviors than never-users, and consistent users were more likely to have cancer-preventive behaviors than intermittent users,” Dr. von Wagner said in a prepared statement.

The researchers also detected what they called a “digital divide.” That is, Internet users tended to be younger, male, white, wealthier, more educated and without physical limitations, while non-users typically were older, poorer, non-white individuals with physical limitations.

“Action to promote Internet use among today’s older adults from all social and ethnic backgrounds could contribute to improving cancer outcomes and reducing inequalities,” the authors concluded.

This study was published October 22 in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

This study was funded by the Brazilian agency CAPES, a Cancer Research UK program grant and a medical research council studentship.

No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
October 22, 2013
Last Updated:
October 23, 2013