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Did you know that older adults living in the same neighborhood are similar in their cognitive functioning?

December, 2017

Against the backdrop of increasing life expectancy, understanding factors that predict the maintenance of cognitive functioning into old age has become increasingly relevant. Examples of cognitive functions include memory, reasoning, and the speed at which information can be processed. In general, physical as well as social and intellectual activities are viewed as beneficial for maintaining these functions. Furthermore, it has been speculated that the opportunities to engage in these activities are partially determined by one's residential neighborhood.

For that reason, ISS-researchers Jonathan Wörn and Lea Ellwardt– together with colleagues from Amsterdam and Oslo – examined whether the socioeconomic status and the degree of urbanity of a residential neighborhood are associated with the cognitive functioning of its older inhabitants.

To this end, the researchers used information on the average income and the density of residential and business addresses of 63 Dutch neighborhoods. This information was connected to data from the LASA Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam on 985 older inhabitants from these neighborhoods in order to analyze how different cognitive functions of 65- to 88-year-olds develop within 6 years.

The study found that older adults from neighborhoods with a higher average income performed better in two out of the four examined cognitive functions. However, the differences between neighborhoods were not caused by the neighborhoods themselves; rather, differences were explained by the higher education and higher income of individuals who lived in these neighborhoods. Both of these factors are positively associated with cognitive functioning and increase the likelihood to live in a neighborhood with an overall higher average income.

Additionally, older adults in more urbanized neighborhoods performed better on cognitive tests. The researchers explained that daily requirements in more urbanized neighborhoods (e.g. the multitude of information that has to be processed when moving in busy traffic) constitute a cognitive training on a day-to-day basis. However, this effect may reverse into poorer cognitive functioning if older adults in very highly urbanized neighborhoods feel overtaxed by the demands of their neighborhood.

Since the decline of cognitive functions in the observed period was independent of the neighborhood characteristics under consideration, the researchers concluded that the differences between older adults in more and less urbanized neighborhoods already came about earlier in life.

All in all, the observed differences between neighborhoods were rather small. Thus, the researchers recommend that measures to maintain the cognitive functioning of older adults should cater to the needs of individuals.