Walkable Neighborhoods Linked To Less Cognitive Decline

A daily walk or two improves mental acuity and vitalizes the walker. Walking is particularly useful as a daily activity of aging adults and seems to keep cognitive decline at bay. A recent study probed how walks mitigate aging and stimulate our minds even if one has degenerative problems.

Providing secure walkability is important for any age. Certainly, older walkers might need a bench to rest on, clearly marked crossings with adequate time to cross streets, and sidewalks in good repair. Having a destination worth walking to in the neighborhood is another advantage and will incite more walks.


A recent weekend of the Gerontological Society of America’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, explored study results from the University of Kansas. Amber Watts, assistant professor of clinical psychology, expressed her findings at the symposium. Not only heart function and blood pressure, but also memory and all cognitive functions were in less decline even in people with Alzheimer’s disease when they engaged in daily walking.

Basically, her research shows that walkable communities can blunt cognitive decline. One might think that a complicated community layout might set off confusion in the aging. However, she found the opposite to be true. That complexity helped to keep cognition sharp in older adults.

“There seems to be a component of a person’s mental representation of the spatial environment, for example, the ability to picture the streets like a mental map,” Watts said. “Complex environments may require more complex mental processes to navigate. Our findings suggest that people with neighborhoods that require more mental complexity actually experience less decline in their mental functioning over time.”

The work builds on Watts’ long attention and study of health behaviors, prevention strategies, and bio-behavioral processes associated with cognitive decline and dementia as the University of Kansas (KU). “I’ve always been interested in why people choose to engage in healthy behaviors or not,” Amber Watts said. “I had been very focused around issues of the individual until I met and started working with architects who study how the physical world around us influences our choices. I found that fascinating, and I wanted to incorporate that into my work about health behaviors.”

This is supportive information for green city planners and city infrastructure layouts. More green planning in neighborhoods so that people will be able to make healthful choices is something we are lacking in much of the US. Good ambiance, sidewalks, and mixing of uses in a neighborhood can go a long way.

KU continues: “Watts said cognitive testing of the research subjects fell into three categories: attention, or mentally rearranging patterns of letters and numbers; verbal memory, or recalling words immediately and after a delay; and mental status, a screening test for symptoms of dementia.” She reported the 25 people with mild Alzheimer’s disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairment she tracked showed improved outcomes both for physical health and cognition from walkable neighborhoods. Watts and her KU colleagues put to use geographic information systems — essentially maps that measure and analyze spatial data to evaluate her findings.

“GIS data can tell us about roads, sidewalks, elevation, terrain, distances between locations and a variety of other pieces of information,” Watts said. “We then use a process called Space Syntax to measure these features, including the number of intersections, distances between places or connections between a person’s home and other possible destinations they might walk to. We’re also interested in how complicated a route is to get from one place to another. For example, is it a straight line from point A to point B, or does it require a lot of turns to get there?”

Yes, a “healthy heart is a healthy mind.” Walking harmonizes the right and left spheres of the brain, increases circulation, and expands one’s experience of life during the day or evening.

 Walking on Sunshine
Walking on Sunshine

An article in Insteading shared that a growing number of Americans want walkable neighborhoods. They choose them as more important than a big house. “According to the 2011 Community Preference Survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors, the shifting economy has had a substantial impact on attitudes toward housing and communities. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said sidewalks and places to take walks are among the top community characteristics they consider important when deciding where to live. After hearing detailed descriptions of two different types of communities, 56% of Americans select the smart growth community and 43% select the sprawl community. Smart growth choosers do so largely because of the convenience of being within walking distance to shops and restaurants (60%).”

Millennials will slow cognitive disorder before it happens by choosing smart growth neighborhoods. They will walk as a matter of lifestyle for years to come.

Firing up the sparks in our brains is a plus of walking. Now we can also fire up our cell phones due to a fast walk. Ecopreneurist reports: “a new device that can convert the motion of walking or hiking into usable power could be a viable solution for mobile power, especially when off the grid or in emergencies…. Taking a brisk five minute walk (at about 1.5 meters/second) can generate enough electricity (at 12W output) to power 25 minutes of talk time on a phone, and the same walk, but at a slightly slower pace (1.3 m/s), yields 18 minutes of talk time.”

Related Stories:

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How Does Your City Compare to Others in Bicycling, Walking and Transit?

Californians Walking, Bicycling, & Using Mass Transit Have Doubled Since

More Benches, More Close Knit Communities

Images by robokow (CC BY 2.0); Giuseppe Milo (CC BY 2.0)

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