Prevention and mitigation of cognitive aging is a major concern for older adults. Several modifiable factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia have been identified—many of which focus on individual lifestyles or behaviors (e.g., smoking, diet, exercise, depression, physical health, education levels, etc.). However, researchers have turned their attention to how built and social environments can influence these individual factors. For example, it’s easier to eat healthily and exercise if you live closer to high quality grocery stores and public parks. A study that earned a Silver 2023 Innovative Research on Aging Award examined how certain neighborhood characteristics, like amount of green space and number of museums, are associated with cognitive health in aging adults.
Study participants (n = 21, 151), drawn from the REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study, were approximately 67 years old, on average, at the beginning of the study.
The researchers examined associations between cognitive functioning (a composite of working memory, verbal fluency, and executive functioning) and specific neighborhood features related to physical, social, and cognitive stimulation (e.g., art museums, coffee shops, fast food restaurants, highways, libraries, recreation centers and more). They found that neighborhoods with access to recreation centers, civic and social organizations, arts organizations, and museums contributed to better cognition scores, whereas a higher number of fast-food and coffee establishments and greater highway density were associated with lower cognitive function scores. Similar patterns were found regardless of race, gender, or education levels.
This is among the first studies to examine how specific features of one’s built and social environments may contribute to (or mitigate) cognitive aging. The researchers have coined this concept “Cognability” to index how supportive a neighborhood is of cognitive health and aging in later age. It should be noted that these results are correlational, not causal, and as such we cannot conclude that these features directly cause improved cognition. Where we live matters greatly for our health, and it turns out that certain factors may be more effective than others in promoting positive aging.