Where You Live Could Impact Your Brain Health

The neighborhood where you live could affect your chances of developing Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia as much as your age, gender or ethnicity.

"Your physical environment is critically important for your brain health," says Sarah Lenz Lock, senior vice president for policy and brain health at AARP. "Where you live and your environment are things people can change to lower their risks."

Lock, who also serves as executive director for the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), will discuss the latest research in that field as the keynote speaker at AARP Oregon's 2021 Vital Aging conference on Wednesday, Nov. 17, and Thursday, Nov. 18.

The virtual event, geared toward older adults and their caregivers, will also focus on AARP Oregon's work on livable communities.

The work of the GCBH—an international collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts—led AARP to develop the Six Pillars of Brain Health. They are:

  • Be Social
  • Engage Your Brain
  • Manage Stress
  • Ongoing Exercise
  • Restorative Sleep
  • Eat Right

Each of the pillars comes with a series of science-based recommendations people should follow to help keep their brains healthy and stem the onset of dementia.

Environment matters

"Living in an age-friendly place where you can get around on foot, walk to the store or meet a friend at a nearby park is a way to maintain and improve our brain health," says Bandana Shrestha, AARP Oregon state director.

Yet many people lack access to the amenities that would make healthy choices easier.

Those who live in rural areas may find the socializing needed to maintain a healthy brain difficult because of their remote location or lack of access to health care resources.

A 2017 Rand Corp. study found that Americans living in rural areas were more likely to develop cognitive decline and dementia than those living in cities. However, urban areas also have the challenge of noise and light pollution, Lock says.

A study released this spring by the University College of London found that older adults who failed to get six hours of uninterrupted sleep each night were 30 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who did.

The GCBH's 180 experts at 67 universities worldwide research lifestyle factors that can affect dementia risk, including how a person's physical environment relates to possible cognitive decline. AARP uses the information the council generates to suggest policy changes that will help push back against the expected rise of new Alzheimer's cases over the next few decades.

Earlier this year, AARP Oregon announced an outdoor fitness park will be built with FitLot equipment in Springfield's Willamalane Park and Recreation District. This sort of access to exercise, the GCBH says, is necessary to maintain brain health. And that, according to the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation, could cut the chances of developing dementia by up to 50 percent.

To register for AARP Oregon's Vital Aging conference, go to aarp.cvent.com/vitalaging2021.

This article was originally published to AARP Oregon's website in Oct.. 2021