Neighbourhood greenspaces can reduce dementia risk

A new study indicates that having greenspaces within a neighbourhood can help lower the risk of developing dementia, with proximity to these areas more important than the total amount of parkland.

Associate Professor Matthew Pase

The Monash University study published in the current issue of Preventive Medicine Reports, looked at how specific neighbourhood characteristics can affect cognition and dementia.

“It is important to understand whether there are specific neighbourhood characteristics associated with dementia risk factors and cognition which may inform dementia risk reduction interventions,” the paper says.

“We sought to examine whether greenspace, walkability, and crime associated with the cumulative burden of modifiable dementia risk factors and cognition.”

It found a doubling of distance to greenspace was equal to being about 2.5 years older, in terms of dementia risk factors.

Greenspaces linked to modifiable risks

Senior author Associate Professor Matthew Pase of the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health says one explanation for the benefits of easily accessible greenspaces could be related to modifiable dementia risks, such as lack of exercise and social interaction.

“Living close to greenspace may encourage or permit people to exercise more, for example walk or run, and also socialise, for example talking to locals in a park,” he said.

Having lots of little parks that are closer to more people might potentially be better than having one big park that is further away.

Associate Professor Matthew Pase

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

Proximity to greenspace was more important than the total amount of greenspace in an area, he added.

“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,” Professor Pase said.

High crime areas raise dementia risk

Meanwhile, he said living in high crime areas could drive behaviours linked to dementia, such as encouraging isolation and interfering with sleep.

“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 explanation was that people with higher levels of education, another protection against dementia, were likely to live in areas with low crime rates.

Policy implications

Project lead Dr Marina Cavuoto said the findings had important policy implications for governments.

“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.” 

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