December 30, 2014

Walkable Communities Can Stave Off Cognitive Decline

A recent University of Kansas study found that walkable communities keep older adults’ cognition sharp.  And, contrary to popular belief, complex neighborhood layouts do not necessarily confuse older residents — instead they appear to protect cognitive performance over time.
Image Source: i.tokaris via Flickr
The study followed 25 people with mild Alzheimer’s disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairment for two years.  Using GIS data (e.g., roads, sidewalks, elevation, terrain, distances between locations) on the area around each participant’s home, researcher Amber Watts established a “walkability score” for each participant’s neighborhood.  The walkability score was then compared with participants’ performance on a series of cognitive tests testing attention, verbal memory and mental status.  The results suggest communities built for walking yield better cognitive outcomes for residents. 

Watts thinks that planners and architects could benefit from these findings.  She notes that “[f]eatures of a neighborhood that encourage walking for transportation require having someplace worth walking to, like neighbors’ houses, stores and parks…[f]or older adults, safety is a key issue in walkability…That includes things like traffic lights that give ample time to cross, sidewalks that are in good repair, and benches to stop and rest.”