Brain training companies say that carefully designed computer games can make a brain work better, but neuroscientists and Alzheimer’s researchers have warned the public that such conclusions can be misleading. Now, some researchers say that neighborhoods could impact how well the brains of older people function.
At Kansas University, assistant professor of psychology Amber Watts is gearing up for a large study on how the walkability of neighborhoods impacts cognition—and maybe even dementia. An initial pilot study on 25 people she conducted with a fellow Alzheimer’s researcher and two architects found that the sample of older adults who lived in more "walkable" neighborhoods performed much better on cognition tests. Another sample of adults with early dementia living in walkable neighborhoods also showed promising signs, but the results were more complicated.
"I wouldn’t say that moving to a walkable neighborhood will prevent you from getting Alzheimer’s," Watts says. "This could be a relatively small contribution, but it could be important. We can’t change our age, we can’t change whether we have genetic alleles that put us at risk, but we can change how we live."
Watts explains that "walkable" neighborhoods have a couple of key characteristics that hold great promise for the brain. Using mapping software called Space Syntax, she and her colleagues pinpointed neighborhoods that maintained the most connectivity, meaning the number of places there were to visit within a half-mile radius of a person’s home, and the most integration, the complexity of navigating such a space.
"Higher connectivity across the board is associated with better cognitive function. It could be that there’s more places to walk to, more people to socialize with, more opportunities to get there," Watts says.
The integration factor, on the other hand, is a little trickier. For people who aren’t cognitively impaired, navigating a more complex neighborhood could be linked to better cognitive function. But that same characteristic could end up backfiring for people with Alzheimer’s. If the neighborhood is too complex for those with dementia to remember how to find their way out, walkability could work against them.
Now that Watts and her colleagues have the preliminary results (which was funded by the National Institute on Aging and presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America last month), they’re hoping to do a follow-up study with pedometers on 100 older adults and those with early dementia. Even after controlling for other factors like age, sex, and income, the walkability results look promising, Watts says.