Walking in different urban environments impacts the brain activity of older adults

For the attention of: City planners, local councils, general public, landscape architects and urban designers

The problem: Given the global increases in both urbanisation and ageing populations, it is important to understand the impact that urban spaces (busy, quiet and green spaces in particular) have on older adults if they are to maintain healthy, active lifestyles.

How do older people respond as they move through different kinds of everyday, outdoor environments?

Previous neuroimaging studies have largely taken place either in a laboratory setting, or have involved tests on young, healthy adults.

What we did: We used mobile neuroimaging to record measurable neural responses in older adults when walking in different urban environments. Participants walked one of six predefined distinctly different routes in an urban setting. This allowed us to understand the effects of being fully immersed in an environment, and we examined neural change related to attention and relaxation. We found changes in beta activity, associated with increases in attention, in busy urban environments when compared with urban green space.

What our study adds: This study looks at brain activity associated with walking in urban environments in older people.

  • Builds on the increasing body of research seeking to understand how the environment affects neural responses in the brain, and associated health and wellbeing outcomes.
  • Used for the first time in people aged 65+, and in ‘real world’ settings

Our simple methodology adds ecological validity to the study findings and highlights the varying attentional demands of different environments.

Implications for city policy and practice: Undertaking this research has led to identification of neural signatures associated with the experience of different kinds of urban spaces in older people. The findings and methodology are useful for planners and designers of public spaces and residential environments, as well as for policy-makers and health practitioners, in helping understand any beneficial or detrimental effects of urban places on an ageing population.

Links to other resources and support: Information on this research project as well as others across a larger project: Mobility, Mood and Place. A lifelong health and wellbeing research project.

Research article: Walking in different urban environments impacts the brain activity of older adults

Authors: Chris Neale, Peter Aspinall, Jenny Roe (@jennyroe), Sara Tilley (@saraatilley), Panagiotis Mavros (@mavrosp), Steve Cinderby (@s_cinderby_SEI), Richard Coyne (@ecran99), Neil Thin (@neilthin), Catharine Ward Thompson
Editor: Marcus Grant