Studies Show How Neighborhoods Can Help Maintain Cognitive Health in Seniors

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Americans are living longer than ever, but cognitive decline threatens the quality of these recent golden years. Now, new evidence suggests that where the elderly live may help protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

A trio of studies from the University of Michigan show that urban and suburban neighborhoods that provide opportunities for socialization, physical activity, and intellectual stimulation can help maintain cognitive health in older adults.

Neighborhoods matter. These are important spaces for the elderly, and they really do have an impact on the opportunities or barriers to aging well in place. “

Jessica Finlay, Senior Research Author and Researcher, UM Institute for Social Research Survey Research Center

“These articles reflect on how neighborhoods might encourage healthy behaviors that could in turn benefit the brain, and for the risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia, which are among the greatest fears and burdens facing our population. aging is facing. “

Finlay and his colleagues found that seniors whose neighborhoods are conducive to physical activity and socialization were about three years younger, in terms of cognitive health, than those with very little access to exercise and socialization. socialization. Those who had access to intellectually stimulating places such as museums, higher education campuses, and libraries had a cognitive age difference of about five years compared to those who had little or no access to these. premises.

However, the study examining intellectually stimulating venues shows a greater protective benefit for white adults than for black seniors. Researchers believe this likely reflects the impact of broad and structural systems of racism that limit and distort black populations’ access to such spaces.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all conclusion. We find that access to these neighborhood sites diverges along different axes of power and privilege, including race, gender and socio-economic status, ”said Michael Esposito.

Esposito, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Washington, led the quantitative analysis of the studies. Each of the studies used a mixed method of analysis, which compared interviews and analysis of a small group of older people in an urban area to a survey of a much larger and representative group of older people in Canada. nationwide.

In the first assessment, Finlay interviewed 125 seniors in the Minneapolis metro area to find out more about how these seniors lived in their community. In each of the studies, Finlay’s team identified a link between the cognitive health of older adults and proximity to places where they could socialize, exercise, and visit intellectually stimulating places.

A participant told Finlay what she finds invaluable in her exercise facility.

“They’ve built a YMCA for us over 50 years,” said the participant in an interview. “People over there, we’re all older. It’s like a big social club. We practice, but we also laugh and have fun. It’s just a bunch of old people getting together and hanging out. I have always thought that laughter is very healthy for you. I feel rejuvenated going there, both mentally and spiritually. It’s like a safe haven to go, plus we’re healthy.

Esposito tested Finlay’s observations against a much larger group, using the results of an ongoing study involving just over 30,000 people, called the REGARDS study. The REGARDS study recruited participants with an average age of 64 between 2003 and 2007. In 2006, participants’ cognitive health was assessed for the first time, with follow-up every two years thereafter.

“Jessica’s qualitative work gave us clues as to where people might have those interactions they need to promote their cognitive health, and we used that as a starting point to build quantitative models, to see if those observations were valid, ”Esposito said. “Using the REGARDS data, we were able to determine what environmental conditions people with higher cognitive function scores experienced and what external conditions people who displayed lower cognitive function scores had in common.”

Researchers found that places of socialization that were most positively associated with protecting cognitive health were centers for the elderly and organizations such as foreign war veterans or racial or ethnic organizations. Living in neighborhoods with a high density of parks, fitness and sports recreation centers, and pedestrian destinations was associated with better cognitive health.

In the study of intellectually stimulating centers, researchers found that museums and other cultural sites offered the best cognitive health benefits, but again the effect was greatest for whites.

“Going forward, we’re looking at differences by person and by location, for example, differences in the protective cognitive benefits of males or females or non-binary adults, by education level and race,” Finlay said. , who is also a postdoctoral fellow. at the Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health of the UM School of Public Health.

“Understanding these differences could help inform community-level interventions that target those most at risk, including marginalized and underserved communities, who have higher rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s risk. “

Lead author of the study, Philippa Clarke, said understanding neighborhood environments that can support cognitive health is key to alleviating the future burden of dementia in America’s aging population.

“Additionally, as COVID-19 has changed the daily lives of aging Americans, it is essential to understand which neighborhood environments can mitigate the impact of the pandemic on cognitive decline,” said Clarke, professor of epidemiology at the ‘UM School. of public health and research professor at the Survey Research Center of the ISR.

The results are published in the Journal of Aging and Health; Preventive medecine; and Well-being, Space & Society.


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