Walkable communities could improve cognitive ability among older adults

By Chris Spahr

Numerous studies have supported the linkages between transportation planning and public health.  A new study out of the University of Kansas specifically addresses the cognitive benefits of walkable neighborhoods to older adults. Amber Watts, an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology who traditionally focused on individual behaviors as determinants of health, but now is incorporating the impacts of physical environment on health, led this research effort. Using a GIS process called space syntax, which measures features such as number of intersections and distances between places, she calculated a “walkability score” for the home addresses of 25 people with Alzheimer’s disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairments. She then estimated the relationship between the participants’ walkability scores and their performance on cognitive tests over two years while controlling for age, gender, education, and wealth. Her findings not only advanced the idea that walkable neighborhoods are good for health outcomes but also showed that intricate community layouts might help to keep cognition sharp rather than serve as a source of confusion for older adults. People with neighborhoods that require more mental complexity (more turns required to get from Point A to Point B) actually experience less decline in their mental functioning over time.

Another study recently published in the Journal of Transport and Health found that the prevalence of certain destinations including grocery stores, malls, and restaurants/cafes within neighborhoods inhabited by older adults might increase transportation walking trips among this population. Accessible neighborhoods may be even more important for low-income older adults who may not have access to a car. As recent trends in driving show that the baby boom generation is expected to drive considerably less in the next several decades, planners should pay attention to the evidence supporting walkable communities for older adults.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.