How the area you live in could influence your dementia risk

Apr 15, 2024
From greenspaces to crime rates, discover the surprising factors influencing dementia risk in your community. Source: Getty Images.

In the battle against dementia, researchers from Monash University have found that where we live may play a significant role in our risk of developing the debilitating condition.

As part of the Cross-sectional associations between neighborhood characteristics, cognition and dementia risk factor burden in middle-aged and older Australians study, senior author Associate Professor Matthew Pase, of the Monash University School of Psychological Sciences and the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health delved into the intricate relationship between neighbourhood characteristics and dementia risk.

“In 2022 we observed that individuals residing in lower socioeconomic status areas had more dementia risk factors and worse memory performance,” Pase noted.

“Such findings motivated us to explore the specific neighbourhood characteristics associated with dementia risk and cognition.”

The findings were eye-opening. Living further from greenspaces was associated with an increased risk of dementia factors, with each doubling of the distance akin to ageing 2.5 years. Similarly, higher crime rates were linked to a decline in memory scores comparable to ageing three years.

“Living close to greenspace may encourage or permit people to exercise more (e.g. walk or run) and also socialise (e.g., talk with locals in a park),” Pase said of the findings.

“It may also limit environmental stressors such as air pollution and noise.

“In our latest study, proximity to greenspace was more important than the absolute amount of greenspace in an area. In other words, having lots of little parks that are closer to more people might potentially be better than having one big park that is further away.”

Pase suggested that increased crime rates might also potentially influence behaviours associated with dementia.

“People living in an area with a high crime rate might exercise, go out and socialise in public places less as a result,” he said.

“More crime could also make it difficult to sleep and spark potentially harmful coping behaviours like smoking.

“Even a perception of crime might cause psychological stress, which we previously found can be associated with dementia risk. Another possibility is that those who are more educated, which protects against dementia, are able to live in areas with low crime rates, although we adjusted for these factors in our analyses.”

Dr. Marina Cavuoto, senior research fellow and clinical neuropsychologist at the National Ageing Research Institute in Melbourne, and an adjunct senior research fellow at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, highlighted the potential for policy interventions to impact dementia risk.

“Policy interventions by different levels of government could address social determinants of health at the neighbourhood level,” she said.

“Collaboration between health and non-health sectors such as environment, infrastructure and housing is required to scale equitable and sustainable health promotion and dementia prevention.

“Programs that seek to improve modifiable dementia risk factors should consider the influence of neighbourhood characteristics. If governments moved to improve access to parkland and safety at a local level it could encourage healthier lifestyles that may reduce dementia risk factors.”

In light of these discoveries, prioritising access to greenspaces and addressing neighbourhood safety concerns could prove pivotal in mitigating dementia risk factors and fostering healthier communities.

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