Does your neighborhood help protect your cognitive health as you age?
A new tool, an interactive map developed by researchers at the University of Michigan, lets you plug in your address and assess how your neighborhood might support healthy cognitive aging according to a theory that UM scientist Jessica Finlay and his colleagues have developed, called “cognitability”.
The theory suggests that an older person’s access to civic and social organizations, cultural centers such as museums and art galleries, and recreation centers can help protect against cognitive decline as a person getting old.
The theory is supported by a growing body of research by a group from the UM Institute for Social Research and the UM School of Public Health. The group recently published a study in Social Science & Medicine finding that an unequal distribution of hazards such as pollution and access to amenities such as museums and recreation centers, and civic organizations, where people can gathering and connecting, may help explain inequalities in cognitive health. in the elderly.
“I wanted to think about how neighborhoods contribute to the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” said Finlay, a researcher at ISR’s Survey Research Center. “There are hints in the literature that neighborhoods might actually play a very big role, but they are largely overlooked. We often don’t pay attention to the neighborhood context for people as they develop and deal with cognitive decline as they age. The goal is to make this work accessible.
Specifically, the study found that neighborhood characteristics such as recreation centers, civic and social organizations, fast food restaurants and cafes, arts organizations, museums, and highways were all significant predictors of scores. people’s cognitive functions. People who lived in neighborhoods with easy access to civic and social organizations had higher cognitive scores than those who lived in neighborhoods without immediate access to these organizations. This equates to a difference of about two years in people’s ages.
The researchers also showed that people who lived in neighborhoods with high exposure to freeways had lower cognitive scores than those who lived in neighborhoods with few freeways. This again results in a two-year age difference. Other characteristics such as neighborhoods with a high density of cafes and fast food outlets were associated with slightly lower levels of cognitive function.
“It really is cutting-edge work. Cognitability helps people think about their neighborhood environment as it relates to their cognitive health,” said study co-author Philippa Clarke, a professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and a research professor at the ISR Survey Research Center.
“Most research on cognitive function and dementia focuses on mitigating individual risk factors, but cognizability redirects attention to features in the environment that may greatly contribute to mitigating cognitive decline with aging. .”
Finlay and his colleague Michael Esposito have previously assessed unique characteristics of neighborhoods to determine their impact on cognitive function. But now the researchers wanted to compare a collection of 15 characteristics to see which might be most strongly associated with cognitive function in older adults, said Esposito, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.
The panel included the cognitive scores of more than 20,000 participants in the REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, a national sample of older black and white adults in the United States.
Esposito, who led the statistical analysis portion of the study, created a conservative model that assumed that none of the 15 neighborhood characteristics impacted cognitive health. Then, using a statistical learning approach, he let the model cycle through each of 15 characteristics of a neighborhood’s cognitive function.
“Our starting assumption in the model was that none of these characteristics mattered. We wanted only characteristics to remain in the model that have a strong enough association to break free of this assumption,” Esposito said. “In the end result, after trying to eliminate the association, we can check if it’s still there. If it can pass this test, functionality is likely an important predictor of cognitive health.”
The researchers were unable to control for factors such as wealth, which they say likely determine a person’s ability to buy in a neighborhood with better access to many of these characteristics. But in future work, they plan to test such indicators, Esposito said.
“The fact that we live in a country where people’s access to health varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, that health depends on where you live, is important to demonstrate,” he said. he declares.
The team also ran models to see if differences in cognitive function within neighborhoods existed by race, gender, and education (an indicator of socioeconomic status), but these early models did not find significant differences.
“I will say it was a very exploratory and early approach to this work,” Finlay said. “We need more theoretically informed and targeted surveys of how neighborhoods and cognitive health may vary by race, ethnicity, gender, education, and wealth.”
Finlay hopes the website will provide evidence on healthy aging to neighborhood residents, policy makers and those providing community services.
“The idea is really just awareness and education. Pro-dementia and aging efforts often lack real concrete evidence about what to build and how to support communities,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be huge revisions. This could include adding shaded benches or a bathroom or outdoor exercise equipment targeting older generations to existing playgrounds and parks. These can be small increases in what we do to help people aged 8 to 80.