Living in a neighbourhood that encourages walking can stave off cognitive decline in older adults, according to new research.
“Features of a neighbourhood that encourage walking for transportation require having someplace worth walking to, like neighbours’ houses, stores and parks,” said Amber Watts, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas.
Researchers judged walkability using geographic information systems – essentially maps that measure and analyse spatial data.
“GIS data can tell us about roads, sidewalks, elevation, terrain, distances between locations and a variety of other pieces of information,” Watts said.
Watts said easy-to-walk communities resulted in better outcomes both for physical health – such as lower body mass and blood pressure – and cognition (such as better memory) in the 25 people with mild Alzheimer’s disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairment she tracked.
She believes that older adults, health care professionals, caregivers, architects and urban planners could benefit from the findings.
Researchers estimated the relationship between people’s neighbourhood scores and their performance on cognitive tests over two years, factoring in issues like age, gender, education and wealth, that might influence people’s cognitive scores independently of neighbourhood characteristics.
They found that intricate community layouts might help to keep cognition sharp, rather than serve as a source of confusion in older adults.
“There seems to be a component of a person’s mental representation of the spatial environment, for example, the ability to picture the streets like a mental map,” Watts said.
“Complex environments may require more complex mental processes to navigate. Our findings suggest that people with neighbourhoods that require more mental complexity actually experience less decline in their mental functioning over time,” said Watts.