A number of studies have associated the impact of physical environment on health outcomes, but one area that has received little attention is how characteristics of place can potentially impact cognition. A recent study looked at neighborhood characteristics, home characteristics, and older adults’ perceptions of these environments in relation to cognitive tests.
To document neighborhood characteristics, interviewers noted the state of disrepair of streets and problems such as dirtiness, noise, or heavy traffic, and the researchers looked at neighborhood crime statistics and a neighborhood disadvantage index that included poverty, unemployment, etc. In examining homes, interviewers noted the state of disrepair of the participants’ buildings, and household problems such as the space being messy, dirty, or noisy. In addition to these observations about objective characteristics, participants were asked about their perceptions of neighborhood danger and social cohesion, and the social support, strains, or threats they experienced in their homes.
The researchers found that street disrepair was associated with lower cognitive performance, as was violent crime in the neighborhood—but only where the crime rate was high. This appeared to be tied to participants’ subjective perceptions of their neighborhoods. On the other hand, neighborhood disadvantage was not associated with cognitive performance. Regarding participants’ perceptions of neighborhood, perceptions of neighborhoods being dangerous were associated with worse cognitive performance, while perceptions of a neighborhood’s positive social cohesiveness were associated with better cognitive performance.
In terms of home characteristics, cluttered homes were associated with poorer cognitive performance, but a building’s state of disrepair was not. And higher levels of perceived social support were associated with better cognitive performance for women but not for men.
The researchers suggest these findings could reflect the impact of a physical environment on stress and/or loneliness, or that disordered environments may have a negative impact on cognition due to the additional demands that they place on attention as such environments are navigated.
This study shows both the greater influence that subjective perspectives of environments can have over objective features of the environment, as well as the need for aging services professionals to pay attention to how home and neighborhood environments may be affecting older adults.
Lee H and Waite LJ. Cognition in context: the role of objective and subjective measures of neighborhood and household in cognitive functioning in later life. The Gerontologist. 2017. DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnx050