By Marica Cassarino PhD
School of Applied Psychology
We all want to grow old being healthy and happy, and we all deserve to live in places that promote our autonomy and quality of life. In a world that is becoming increasingly older and urbanised, it is important to understand the impact that growing cities have on healthy ageing. This is a global priority set by the World Health Organization in 2007 to encourage the development of “Age-friendly” places that promote health, safety and participation as we grow old.
While living longer is a positive demographic change, ageing comes with a higher risk of developing chronic conditions, such as dementia and cognitive impairment, which can have a significant negative impact on wellbeing, independence and quality of life, and, by consequence, considerable economic and social costs. Creating age-friendly places that can help to contrast cognitive decline is one of the main challenges faced by the scientific community and policy-makers for the coming years. A first step in addressing such challenge is to map the places where older people are more cognitively healthy, and I did so in my doctoral project by investigating whether urban or rural places in Ireland support better cognitive health in adult age. In my studies I used data from the Irish Census, the All-Island Research Observatory (AIRO, Maynooth University), and The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) – a large study conducted by Trinity College Dublin on the health, socioeconomic and lifestyle circumstances of over 8,000 healthy people aged 50 and older. I explored whether living in a more or less urbanised area would be associated with differences in multiple cognitive abilities, such as memory or attention. I found that, despite the participants in Tilda are overall healthy and relatively young, those living in cities have better executive functions than rural residents, independent of socioeconomic or health status: Executive functions are cognitive skills which allow us to solve complex problems, multi-task, plan our actions, and successfully interact with the surrounding environment (for example, when we cross the road while holding a conversation and paying attention to the traffic), and which can be severely impaired in dementia. Maintaining good executive functions contributes to be cognitively fit for longer, and the more mental stimulation we receive from the variety and novelty in the environment the longer we keep our brain active and engaged. Finding differences in such skills among people who are still young and healthy based on levels of urbanisation supports the idea that the places where we live can influence how well our brain ages, and suggests that rural areas might lack in opportunities for mental stimulation in adult age, calling for interventions to enhance accessibility to stimulating activities. The project represents the initial phase of an ongoing multi-disciplinary investigation which will inform policy-makers and local communities on how the built environment can be improved to support cognitive health with ageing.