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Nov 09, 2014 08:55 AM EST

Easy-to-Walk Communities Can Blunt Cognitive Decline

Neighborhoods that motivate walking can stave off cognitive decline in older adults, according to a recent study.

The investigation from researchers at the University of Kansas bolsters the adage that "heart healthy is brain healthy."

"People can walk either to get somewhere or for leisure," Amber Watts, assistant professor of clinical psychology, said in a statement. "Depending on which type of walking you're interested in, a neighborhood might have different characteristics. Features of a neighborhood that encourage walking for transportation require having someplace worth walking to, like neighbors' houses, stores and parks."

Watts said neighborhoods that inspire walking for leisure also are full of pleasant things to look at, like walking trails or shade provided by trees. Also, such neighborhoods should make people feel secure on foot.

"For older adults, safety is a key issue in walkability," she said. "That includes things like traffic lights that give ample time to cross, sidewalks that are in good repair, and benches to stop and rest."

For the study, Watts and her colleagues used the space syntax data to estimate a "walkability score" for subjects' home addresses. Then they estimated the relationship between people's neighborhood 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 neighborhood characteristics.

They found that easy-to-walk communities results in better outcomes both for physical health -- such as lower body mass and blood pressure -- and cognition in the 25 people with mild Alzheimer's disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairment she tracked.

Interestingly, she 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 neighborhoods that require more mental complexity actually experience less decline in their mental functioning over time."

Watts said older adults, health care professionals, caregivers, architects and urban planners could benefit from the results.

The findings were presented this weekend at the Gerontological Society of America's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.


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