Urbanisation and cognitive ageing: an investigation of geographical variations in the cognitive health of older adults in Ireland

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Cassarino, Marica
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University College Cork
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Ageing and urbanisation worldwide, and the increasing risk of chronic conditions such dementia and cognitive impairment with higher life expectancy, urge to understand the impact of city or rural living on healthy cognitive ageing. Based on the premise that environmental features influence cognition, my doctoral project investigated whether different levels of urbanisation supported specific cognitive skills in older age. Firstly, a thorough review of the literature identified environmental characteristics (e.g. urban vs. rural living, perceptual load caused by traffic or noise, presence of green) which could “train” the brain to maintain efficiency and age well. We proposed the concept of complexity to operationalise and measure the dynamic set of physical factors (encompassing a macro, meso and micro level of analysis) that make the lived environment optimally stimulating for cognitive functioning, and which could therefore be key contributors to cognitive-friendly environments. Using data from The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA), the PhD project investigated macro (urban-rural living) and meso level (population density and accessibility to urban environments) geographical variations in multiple cognitive domains for approximately 5,000 healthy community-dwelling people age 50+, to test the hypothesis that in Ireland higher urbanisation (i.e., higher environmental complexity) would be associated with better performance. We found a positive association (cross-sectionally, but not longitudinally) between urbanisation and executive functions, a key cognitive skill to interact with the environment, in line with our hypothesis. Healthy lifestyles moderated geographical variations in global cognition, in line with research on cognitive reserve. This PhD research provides new evidence on the specific cognitive skills amenable to environmental influences, namely executive functions, and stimulates future work to identify neighbourhood characteristics which can ‘train’ executive functions in older age, with implications for the design of usable and cognitively stimulating places for older people.
Cognitive ageing , Urbanisation , Age-friendly environments , Executive functions
Cassarino, M. 2017. Urbanisation and cognitive ageing: an investigation of geographical variations in the cognitive health of older adults in Ireland. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.