Preserve Your Brain, Live in a Walkable Neighborhood

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. UrbanGrammar

Walkable neighborhoods are great on many levels. The latest news is that they help to preserve your brain.

I've lived in 9 neighborhoods in the past 9 years. Several of those have been very walkable neighborhoods, but some more than others of course. I've realized in my current one, one of the most walkable yet, that a nice, walkable neighborhood is a tremendous value that cannot be quantified by calculating the transportation and time savings. Well, I have known that for ages, but it has really been registering for me lately as I walk with my wife and baby daughter to one wonderful park ~3 minutes away, a huge park/forest ~5 minutes away, or a low-key but super useful shopping center ~4 minutes away. If I miss a day of walking around the neighborhood, or if I haven't yet been out as the mid-afternoon rolls around, I can feel something is just not right — with my body and with my head.

Still, this recent piece of news surprised me: a study from the University of Kansas has found that "neighborhoods that motivate walking can stave off cognitive decline in older adults." My guess is that such neighborhoods also help with the cognitive functions of not-so-elderly adults and children as well.

walkable neighborhood washington dc

Dewita Soeharjono/CC BY 2.0

Amber Watts, assistant professor of clinical psychology, used geographic information systems (GIS) and "Space Syntax" in order to evaluate walkability and the complexity of the study neighborhoods. "Watts said easy-to-walk communities resulted in better outcomes both for physical health—such as lower body mass and blood pressure—and cognition (such as better memory) in the 25 people with mild Alzheimer’s disease and 39 older adults without cognitive impairment she tracked," a University of Kansas article noted.

Aside from the general finding, another interesting one was that communities with more intricate layouts seemed to have an even stronger positive effect. “There seems to be a component of a person’s mental representation of the spatial environment, for example, the ability to picture the streets like a mental map,” Watts said. “Complex environments may require more complex mental processes to navigate. Our findings suggest that people with neighborhoods that require more mental complexity actually experience less decline in their mental functioning over time.”

So, there you go: one very helpful tool to guard against cognitive decline is to live in a highly walkable neighborhood with a bit of complexity to it. And urban planners have yet another arrow in the quiver to argue for walkable neighborhoods.