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Association between the activity space exposure to parks in childhood and adolescence and cognitive aging in later life

Summary


Exposure to green space in environments frequented during daily activities during adolescence may play an important role in optimal cognitive aging

This study used activity space-based measures to determine whether the benefits of childhood or adolescent exposure to nature could be associated with improved cognitive functioning in older adults. An earlier study conducted by the same researchers used “park availability” as the measure of green space exposure. They found that higher childhood park availability was associated with a slower rate of decline in cognitive function from age 70 to 76. These findings were based on residential-based park availability and applied to situations where such availability was sustained into adulthood. This current study extends this research by using “activity space” versus place of residence to measure exposure to green space in childhood and adolescence.  For purposes of this study, activity space was “defined by geographic locations around the home, primary and secondary school, recreation spaces, and the routes between these areas.” This study also considered how movement through one’s activity space during childhood might be influenced by such demographic characteristics as age and gender and by parental perceptions of the activity space, especially in relation to safety.

Data for this study were based on 281 older adults who were a part of the Lothian Birth 1936 Cohort of people living in and around the British city of Edinburgh. All of the participants had taken a test of general intelligence in 1947 when they were 11 years old. They took the same test again at the age of 70 and 76.  They also completed a life grid questionnaire focusing on their residential movement throughout life. A life grid questionnaire is designed to minimize recall bias by using global and local events as memory prompts.  In completing the life grid questionnaire for this study, participants were asked to provide a residential address for each decade from the time of their birth in the 1930s onwards. The researchers used eight measures of the environment to develop two public park indices: The childhood index for children age 4–11 and the adolescence index for youth age 11-18.  The childhood index consisted of the park availability at the home, primary school, and on the route to primary school. The adolescence index consisted of the park availability at the home, secondary school, and on the route to secondary school.  Both indices considered road traffic accident (RTA) density around the home and school as an indicator of safety. The researchers used the data to test for an association between park availability during childhood and adolescence and cognitive aging later in life.

For adolescents – but not for younger children – park availability (as determined by activity space) was positively associated with better cognitive aging in later life. This was especially true for adolescents living in low RTA density areas. The greater independence of mobility during adolescence may explain why the adolescent park availability seemed to be more important for cognitive aging than in childhood.

The current study adds to the literature by offering a novel approach to using information on the home, school, and optimal route to school to estimate the park availability during childhood and then to investigate the association with cognitive aging later in life. The findings indicate that exposure to green spaces in places frequented during daily activities during adolescence may play an important role in optimal cognitive aging.

 

Citation

Cherrie, M.P.C., Shortt, N.K., Ward Thompson, C., Deary, I.J., Pearce, J.R., (2019). Association between the activity space exposure to parks in childhood and adolescence and cognitive aging in later life. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health

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