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.