Study Links Walkable Neighborhoods to Prevention of Cognitive Decline

Older adults who live in walkable neighborhoods stay in better shape, physically and mentally, than those who live in car-dependent areas, according to a new study.

Photo: AARP
Photo: AARP

In a study presented last weekend to the Gerontological Society of America, University of Kansas assistant professor Amber Watts examined 26 subjects with mild Alzheimer’s Disease and 30 healthy control subjects. She tracked health outcomes over two years, controlling for home price, income, gender, and education.

Watts found that subjects living in walkable neighborhoods, from both groups, had lower body mass index, healthier metabolisms, and better memory and cognition. This was particularly true in neighborhoods that had complicated paths to destinations, she found.

“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 in a press release. “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.”

Older adults are less likely to get regular exercise than the general population, but walking is one form of activity that is considered safe and healthy for people with Alzheimer’s. Neighborhood attributes like good sidewalks, generous crossing time at intersections, benches, and closely spaced parks and destinations can help encourage older people to walk for transportation, Watts said.

  • I’m still not walking, anywhere.

  • Chris J.

    Is the point here simply the ability to walk at all, or being able to walk to do errands (e.g. shopping, etc)? In other words, does it matter whether it’s a spread-out suburb versus a denser environment?

  • Yes it matters. People living in more walkable neighborhoods walked more, had better cognitive outcomes.

  • Glad to see that the evidence continues to mount that when it comes to health, the act of walking is a wonder drug extraordinaire.

    The Brilliance of Walking:

  • ClaireB

    What about driving in complex environments- does that have the same effect as walking in complex environments?

  • R.A. Stewart

    From the article, it doesn’t appear that driving was addressed in the study. My guess would be that dealing with a complex environment has some benefit whatever the mode, but that walking has the greater benefit because of the physical exertion (which seems to be linked with improved cognition in multiple studies).

  • Kenny Easwaran

    I would imagine that not too many Alzheimer’s patients are driving, but I might be misunderstanding things.

  • Chris J.

    People living in more walkable neighborhoods walked more, had better cognitive outcomes.

    My question was what “walkable neighborhood” means. For example, does it include suburban neighborhoods having sidewalks? Or is it more about whether daily errands like shopping can be done by walking (which might not be true in a suburb)?