Calculate “knowledge” of your area | University of Michigan News

Screenshot of the interactive map tool. Image courtesy: Perception

Does your neighborhood help protect your cognitive health as you age?

new tool, and interactive map Developed by researchers from the University of Michigan, it allows you to plug in your address and assess how your neighborhood can support healthy cognitive aging under UM scientist theory Jessica Finley And his colleagues, the so-called “perception.”

The theory suggests that older adults’ access to civic and social organizations and cultural centers such as museums, art galleries, and recreation centers may help protect against cognitive decline with age.

The theory is based on a growing body of research led by a group at the UM Institute for Social Research and the UM School of Public Health. The group recently published a study in Social Science and Medicine that found that an uneven distribution of risks such as pollution and access to amenities such as museums, recreation centers and civic organizations, where people can gather and communicate, may help explain disparities in cognitive health among older adults.

“I wanted to think about how biology might contribute to the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” said Finley, a research associate at the Center for Survey Research at ISR. “There are hints in the literature that neighborhoods can play a really big role, but they are largely ignored. We don’t care so much about the context of the neighborhood for people as they develop and transcend cognitive decline as they age. The goal is to make this work accessible.”

In Boulder, Colorado, friends sit together and enjoy an evening at the Pearl Street Mall.  Image credit: iStock

Specifically, the study found that neighborhood features such as recreation centers, civic and social organizations, fast food and coffee shops, art organizations, museums and highways were all significant predictors of people’s cognitive function scores. People who lived in neighborhoods with easy access to civic and social organizations showed higher cognitive scores than those who lived in neighborhoods without immediate access to such organizations. This is similar to the two-year difference in people’s age.

The researchers also showed that people who lived in neighborhoods with high exposure to highways showed lower cognitive scores than those who lived in neighborhoods with few highways. This again translates to a two-year difference in people’s age. Other features such as neighborhoods with a high density of cafes and fast food establishments were associated with slightly lower levels of cognitive function.

“We need more conceptually informed and directed investigations into how biology and cognitive health differ by race, ethnicity, gender, education, and wealth.”

Jessica Finley

“This is really ground-breaking work. Cognition helps people think about their surrounding environment in relation to their cognitive health,” said a study co-author. Philippa Clarkprofessor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health and research professor at the ISR Survey Research Center.

“Most research on cognitive function and dementia focuses on mitigating individual risk factors, but cognition redirects attention to those features in the surrounding environment that may go a long way in mitigating cognitive decline with ageing.”

Finley and Research Fellow Michael Esposito Individual traits of biology were previously evaluated to determine their effect on cognitive function. Esposito, assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, said the researchers now wanted to compare a set of 15 features to see which might be most associated with cognitive function among older adults.

The set included cognitive scores from 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 section of the study, created a conservative model that assumed that none of the 15 neighborhood traits affected cognitive health. Then, using a statistical learning approach, I let the model go through each of the fifteen features of the neighborhood’s cognitive function.

“Our assumption initially in the model was that none of these features mattered. We just wanted the features in the model to still have a strong enough correlation to break free from that assumption,” Esposito said. To see if it still exists. If you can pass this test, the benefit is likely to be an outstanding indicator of cognitive health.”

The researchers were not able to control for factors such as wealth, which they note likely drive a person’s ability to buy in a neighborhood with greater access to many of these features. But Esposito said they plan in future work to test such indicators.

“The fact that we live in a country where people’s access to health varies from neighborhood to neighborhood, and that health is conditioned on where you live, is important to pretend,” he said.

The team also ran models to see if differences in cognitive function exist within neighborhoods by race, gender, and education (a proxy for socioeconomic status), but these early models did not find significant differences.

“I’d say this was a very exploratory, very early approach to this work,” Finley said. “We need more conceptually informed and directed investigations into how biology and cognitive health differ by race, ethnicity, gender, education, and wealth.”

Finley hopes the site will provide clues about healthy aging to neighborhood residents, policy makers, and those who provide community services.

The idea is really just awareness and education. Dementia-friendly efforts often lack real concrete evidence about what to build and how to support communities. “These don’t need huge repairs. It could be adding shaded seating, bathroom or outdoor exercise equipment aimed at older generations in existing playgrounds and parks. It could be small increments on what we do to help accommodate people between the ages of 8 and 80″.