New research has found that a greater provision of parks in childhood and adulthood may help to slow down cognitive decline in later life. Published in Social, Science and Medicine, the CRESH team demonstrated how the availability of public parks throughout life affected cognitive ageing.
Cognitive ageing describes how our mental skills change over time. As we get older our mental skills, used for activities such as following directions or reading a map, deteriorate, which can lead to a reduction in quality of life and general health. Everyone experiences these declines differently and to a certain degree this is due to the places where you have lived. Features of the urban environment such as parks can provide opportunities for social interaction and physical activity, which can build resilience to change, a concept called ‘cognitive reserve’.
We considered whether there were critical times during life (e.g. childhood or older age) when the availability of local parks mattered most. We used data collected from a cohort of people all born in 1936 (the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936). We asked the participants to provide information on their addresses throughout their lives. Using some historical data we then worked out the amount of parks near to where they lived at each stage of life. We had two key findings.
We found a link between park availability in childhood and adulthood and cognitive test scores. Greater provision in both childhood and adulthood predicted better change in cognitive test scores between age 70 and 76. The argument for a link between the experiences of green spaces in childhood and adulthood has previously been described as the ‘childhood factor’. The ‘childhood factor’ describes how our experiences of green spaces in childhood shape our attitudes and patterns of use in adulthood, and possibly our health in later life. What we have found is that the ‘childhood factor’ may be the key to unlocking the potential benefit of green spaces on how we age.
We also found that this benefit might be felt most by certain groups of people. In addition to the lifestyle factors mentioned earlier, there are demographic, genetic and socioeconomic determinants of cognitive ageing. We found that women, those without an APOE e4 allele (a genetic risk factor for dementia) and those in a lower socioeconomic group benefited the most (in terms of cognitive ageing) from having good access to a park. Finding stronger relationships amongst lower socioeconomic groups may be explained by greater time spent in parks closer to home which would act to boost the potential benefits that come with better availability. This finding is similar to some earlier work by the CRESH team which found that environments can be ‘equigenic’ – or assist in reducing health inequalities.
The findings from this new work suggest that not only can greener places improve cognitive ageing and reduce inequalities but that the influence of access to high quality green spaces in childhood through to adulthood – particularly access to parks – can have life-long benefits.
By Catherine Tisch
We’re investigating whether and how the neighbourhoods we live in throughout our lives might influence our health. Our health and wellbeing may reflect an accumulation of influences from the different places we’ve lived during our lives as well as where we currently live. Continue reading Insights into our ‘life course of place’ project. Part 1: constructing residential histories over seven decades
We’re looking for a full-time Administrative Assistant to help us with our research work for 5.5 months. The postholder will assist in gathering, transcribing and inputting historic data from archives, as part of a project that is looking at how places influence our health across the course of our lives (part of the larger Mobility, Mood and Place project). More information here.
Life course, environments & health
We know that factors throughout life influence our health and well-being in older age. Childhood poverty, early life education, difficult life events and many other factors have been shown to be strongly related to subsequent health outcomes. Yet almost all of this work has focused on our individual circumstances, and there have been few attempts to consider whether a wider set of factors – such as those at the community or neighbourhood level – affect our health over the life course. This is perhaps a surprise given the evidence that features of our local environment – such as air pollution, green space, and high numbers of retailers selling fast food, alcohol or cigarettes – are often associated with current health status. If these factors are causally related to health then there may be a number of policy opportunities (e.g. see our recent post on alcohol retail licensing). Continue reading Food environments around schools: what historical data might reveal about current obesity patterns
Jamie Pearce and Niamh Shortt, along with colleagues in the Edinburgh College of Art, the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, the Alzheimer Scotland Dementia Research Centre, School of Social and Political Science, Geriatric Medicine, Kings College London and Heriot Watt University have been successful in securing funding (£1.58 million) under the cross council Design for Wellbeing call led by the EPSRC along with the ESRC and the AHRC. The project, Mobility, Mood and Place, led by Professor Catherine Ward Thompson, will run for 3 years with Jamie and Niamh leading one of the four work packages. This work package will focus on a ‘lifecourse of place’, exploring how physical, built and social environments evolve over time and consider whether these processes are implicated in explaining inequalities in health-related mobility in older age. To get more of an idea of what we plan to do see Jamie’s recent blog post.
There has been a great deal of recent interest amongst social scientists and public health researchers on the multitude of social, economic and cultural factors that operate across the life course to affect our health. Life course perspectives have helped us to appreciate that socioeconomic status and health in older age are not independent of social and economic inequalities earlier in life. Two related pathways are possible. First, social and economic factors accumulate over our lives and this accrual is associated with health later in life. Second, negative socioeconomic exposures early in life influence our social trajectory, in turn affecting health; in other words the playing field in early life is uneven and this helps to establish subsequent health inequalities.
Given that life course perspectives have been so useful it is perhaps surprising that those of us with interests in ‘place’ or the ‘environment’ and health have rarely taken a life course perspective. Place-based factors early in life as well as cumulative exposure to the environment over the life course may well be important for subsequent health. Yet this assertion has rarely been tested despite the possibilities that these approaches offer for enhancing our understanding of health-environment relations. Longitudinal studies of health and the environment have almost exclusively focused on area-level social disadvantage (e.g. using historical census data) and the cumulative effects on health of living in a low income area.
Of course many aspects of the environment have been implicated in explaining health outcomes so why is it that there have been so few studies examining the health implications of a broad set of environmental characteristics over the life course? The likely answer to this question is that we have been put off by the difficultly of the task! It is rare that neighbourhood-level historical information for multiple points in time (e.g. green spaces, local infrastructure, housing quality etc.) is readily available. Even when geographical information is obtainable it is often in an inconvenient form (e.g. a paper map or buried in an archive) or incompatible with social and health information on individuals over the life courses.
Current work at CRESH is exploring the feasibility of developing a ‘life course of places’. We are examining whether we can develop a heuristic for measuring a range of ‘health-related’ neighbourhood measures across the Lothian region of Scotland at various time points over the past 80 years. We are considering the suitability of a range of available data sources including past censuses, historical maps, aerial photography and historical land use information. Of course the environmental characteristics will have a plausible link to health and may include local green space, population and housing density, street connectivity, local destinations, air pollution, availability of services, public space and transport links. We are developing the measures with a view to combining the data with cohort information relating to individuals born in the Lothian region.
If we are successful in our work, then this study promises to provide some new perspectives on understanding the role of place in explaining health outcomes in later life. Watch this space to follow our progress….
Jamie Pearce, February 2013