Does your neighborhood help protect your cognitive health as you age?
A growing body of research led by scientists at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Michigan suggests older adults’ access to civic and social organizations, cultural centers — such as museums and art galleries — and recreation centers may help protect against cognitive decline as a person ages; a theory they have called “cognability.”
In a recent study, “Cognability: an ecological theory of neighborhoods and cognitive aging,” published in Social Science & Medicine, the researchers found evidence that these neighborhood features can predict older adults’ cognitive function scores.
“The main goal of this project was to examine a potential connection between older adults’ cognitive health and the neighborhood environments in which they reside,” said study co-author Michael Esposito, PhD, assistant professor of sociology in Arts & Sciences at WashU.
“And we found evidence of that association: folks living in areas layered with place-based privileges and with minimal exposure to hazards experienced significantly better outcomes than their peers.”
Specifically, people who lived in neighborhoods with ready access to civic and social organizations displayed higher cognitive scores than those who lived in neighborhoods with no immediate access to such organizations. The difference was equivalent to roughly a two-year age difference.
The researchers also showed that people who lived in neighborhoods with high exposure to highways displayed lower cognitive scores than those who lived in neighborhoods with few highways. This again translates to a two-year age difference. Other features, such as neighborhoods with high densities of coffee shops and fast-food establishments, were associated with slightly lower levels of cognitive function.
“There are hints in the literature that neighborhoods actually could play a really big role (in one’s risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia), but they’re largely overlooked. We don’t often pay attention to the neighborhood context for people as they develop and navigate cognitive decline as they age,” said Jessica Finlay, a research investigator at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).
Identifying specific neighborhood features that are most protective of cognitive health among aging adults is important to informing future public health initiatives, community interventions and policy, researchers said.
“These results here are fairly preliminary, setting the stage for additional research on the topic, but demonstrate that inequalities in the neighborhood environment may be a crucial, structural mechanism to understanding larger population health disparities,” Esposito said.