It’s well known that living in an easy-to-walk community can improve your health. A new study from the University of Kansas has found that walkable neighborhoods also encourage cognition such as better memory in older adults. 

"The investigation shows neighborhoods that motivate walking can stave off cognitive decline in older adults," according to a press release outlining results from the study

Neighborhoods that inspire walking for leisure should make people feel secure on foot and should also feature pleasant things to look at such as walking trails or shade provided by trees, the study found. 

"For older adults, safety is a key issue in walkability," Amber Watts, assistant professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, said in the release. "That includes things like traffic lights that give ample time to cross, sidewalks that are in good repair, and benches to stop and rest." 

Watts tracked 25 people with Alzheimer's disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairment and found that easy-to-walk communities resulted in better outcomes both for physical health such as lower body mass and blood pressure, and cognition in these people. 

She found that intricate community layouts in particular might help keep cognition sharp, rather that serve as a source of confusion in older adults, according to her research, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging. 

"We think this may be because mental challenges are good for us," she said. "They help keep us active and working at that optimal level instead of choosing the path of least resistance." 

The AARP, which counts more than 37 million members over 50, has been actively building a campaign promoting walkable communities including green space and sidewalks, according to a recent article from The Atlantic CityLab.

However, the fact that older Americans don't typically gravitate toward cities and towns that are already walkable means that some urban planning changes will need to happen.

"Seniors head largely to the Sun Belt cities that are least likely to meet their needs as they grow too old to drive," the article noted. "This preference, in addition to seniors' general desire to 'age in place,' puts the burden of communities to adapt. Seniors aren't going to walkable neighborhoods (in part because of high housing prices), so walkable neighborhoods will have to go to seniors."

Published on: Nov 11, 2014