Getting regular aerobic exercise, such as walking, may be one of the best ways to stave off dementia, a finding recently reconfirmed by yet another study.
But older Americans are the most at risk for being killed when they go out on foot in their communities, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control.
It’s just another illustration of the inherently ridiculous situation faced by a huge proportion of the American public. Even as we recognize that regular exercise is good for people of all ages – including and especially kids and senior citizens – we continue to build communities that make it especially hazardous for those very same people to go for a simple walk to the store.
As a result, too many Americans don’t get the moderate exercise that could improve their health in the course of their daily lives. The alternative is for them to drive (or be driven) to the gym, where they can pace on treadmills while looking at walls, or sit on exercise bicycles and pedal to nowhere while watching TV.
It would be funny if the consequences weren't so grave, and if we didn't have the resources and knowledge to do things differently.
Take the recent findings about exercise and dementia.
As summarized in a recent story on NPR mentioning the research of neuroscientist Art Kramer, who directs the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, aerobic exercise has proven effective in increasing the brain health of older adults:
Kramer did a study in which he scanned the brains of 120 older adults, half of whom started a program of moderate aerobic exercise — just 45 minutes, three days a week, mostly walking. After a year, the MRI scans showed that for the aerobic group, the volume of their brains actually increased.
What's more, individuals in the control group lost about 1.5 percent of their brain volume, adding up to a 3.5 percent difference between individuals who took part in aerobic exercise and those who did not. Further tests showed that increased brain volume translated into better memory.
Kramer's research echoes numerous other studies. Neuroscientist Peter Snyder, a researcher at Brown University's Alpert Medical School and Rhode Island Hospital, told NPR the evidence is mounting that moderate aerobic exercise — walking — could be the best thing older adults can do to maintain mental sharpness.
"What we're finding is that of all of these noninvasive ways of intervening, it is exercise that seems to have the most efficacy at this point — more so than nutritional supplements, vitamins and cognitive interventions," says Snyder, who studies what we can do to maintain memory as our brains age.... "The literature on exercise is just tremendous," he says. "What we find is that with exercise — with aerobic exercise, a moderate amount on a regular basis — there are chemical changes that occur in the brain that promote the growth of new neurons in [the hippocampus]."
And yet the streets of many American communities are designed in such a way that taking a simple walk can be a life-threatening proposition, especially for older people, who might move more slowly and have limited vision or other disabilities. The CDC figures show thatpedestrians over the age of 75 are twice as likely to be killed while walking as members of the general population. Yet key lawmakers continue to block funding for better pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, ensuring that more roads and bridges get built without accommodations for people outside of motor vehicles.
And so our society's mixed messages continue. You should get up and go for a walk! The Surgeon General says it’s good for you in every way!
But wait a second – you know you’d be crazy to go for a walk on that busy street near your house, right? You can’t move fast enough to cross that road, which is being used by important people who are commuting long distances to their jobs. Oh, and since older drivers are less safe as well, driving to the gym might not be such a great idea for you after all. Public transportation? We don’t have the money for that. Times are hard, after all.
The simple ability to walk near one's home should be a human right. But even if you don't believe that, it is a public health issue that costs our rapidly aging nation country big money in increased health care costs.
The more insidious toll it takes on the bodies, minds, and spirits of older people who stay inside their homes, looking out, is harder to measure. But it is no less real.
Top image: David W. Leindecker/Shutterstock.com
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist andStreetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.
Baby boomers are retiring in droves in an unprecedented American demographic shift. The last Baby Boomer turns 65 in 2030, so we still have two decades of an aging chunk of the public. A growing body of research points to the importance of designing or retrofitting communities forwalkability to accommodate senior citizens and allow them to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle upon retirement. Walkable neighborhoods help seniors remain active, healthy, social and free to move around. How?
1. Quality of Life While Aging in Place
Many retirees choose to age in place—to avoid moving and remain in their homes as long as possible. But since baby boomers were the generation that built suburbia, many will want to maintain a quality of life in unwalkable neighborhoods.
Older adults socialize more when living in walkable neighborhoods. According to the EPA, in an age-friendly walkable neighborhood or town, regular social interaction is possible, convenient and more frequent. The American Journal of Public Health published a study published a study that reveals older people living in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods have higher levels of social interaction compared with those residing in car-dependent burbs. Living in walkable neighborhoods means you are more likely to know your neighbors, participate in politics, engage socially and even trust people.
2. Transportation + Mobility to Leave the House
Independence builds self-worth and being able to move around your neighborhood is freeing. “More than 20 percent of Americans age 65 or older do not drive. Of those, more than half — about 3.6 million people — stay home on any given day because they have no transportation, AARP says,” from a Washington Post article. Men outlive their “drive-ability” by 7 years, women by 10 years. Public transit becomes key for allowing seniors to remain independent. “A 2002 study by the National Institute on Aging found that about 600,000 people who are 70 or older stop driving every year and become dependent on other forms of transportation.”
A 2003 Brookings Institution study found that 79% of seniors age 65 and older live in car-dependent suburban and rural communities. But older adults increased their use of public transit by 40% between 2001 and 2009. About 15% of those over age 65 use public transit at least once time per month and more than half of them need specialized transportation, according to Placemaking article.
AARP’s report Advancing Mobility Options states, “One of the keys to economic and health security for adults age 50+ is their continued access to a range of viable mobility options within the community. Lack of such options can have a profound impact on how ‘livable’ communities are and have a negative impact on the quality of life enjoyed by older adults in those communities.” Public transportation boosts mobility of seniors. The Street used Walk Score to determine 10 cities where you can retire without having to use a car—around the country from Seattle to Miami.
For the complete article and additional information, please visit the WalkScore Blog:
Pilot project to evaluate sidewalk surfaces
The City of Toronto wants public feedback related to their testing of different sidewalk surfaces at curb ramps, that will help pedestrians with vision loss know when they are approaching an intersection.
As identified on the City of Toronto's website:
"The location for the pilot project is the intersection of Shuter Street and Victoria Street, near St. Michael's Hospital. Different materials are being used in different combinations at the four corners of this intersection. The pilot will help the city understand people's preferences, identify concerns with surfaces and compare installation and maintenance activities for each of the surfaces.
This evaluation will eventually be used to determine the policy, standards and specifications for use on city sidewalks. The construction of the pilot project was completed on November 8, 2012 and will be in place until July, 2013. All of the materials were installed to the manufacturer's specifications and a representative was on-site during the installation of the product.
The city chose this intersection for its evaluation of these treatments because it is a high traffic area and the intersection and sidewalks at this location are planned for reconstruction next year."
For more information, to review the different options, and to provide feedback, visit the City of Toronto's website at the following link:http://www.toronto.ca/sidewalkpilot/
"A": Northwest Corner
Access Tiles supplied by Engineered Plastics Inc., placed in two separate bands in a rectangular configuration:
Inaccessible sidewalks are a significant barrier for people with disabilities. People who use mobility devices such as wheelchairs and scooters face rough rides when sidewalks are cracked and broken; in winter when snow and ice make some sidewalks impassible for wheeled devices; and especially when intersections lack curb ramps, which can make sidewalks completely inaccessible.
Sidewalks in disrepair are not just an issue for people with mobility devices, but for anyone walking down the street as well. It was reported recently in the Toronto Star that a simple cracked curb on King Street in Downtown Toronto, was responsible for a senior falling and breaking her wrist, necessitating months of painful recovery.
The situation is worse in suburban communities which often have inconsistent or completely missing sidewalks, forcing users to either share space with vehicles or attempt to navigate areas of grass or shoulders adjacent to the road that are not intended for pedestrians, let alone pedestrians with disabilities. However, adding sidewalks to streets that don’t currently have them is not as simple as it sounds. Residents of Scarborough’s Chine Drive have been fighting a proposal to construct a sidewalk on their street as part of a general street refurbishment project, even though it would provide easier access to a neighbourhood school for children in the surrounding community. Many of these children are currently driven to school due to the lack of sidewalks.
Looking abroad, the City of Los Angeles faces far greater sidewalk troubles: the city currently estimates that 42% of its 10,750 miles of sidewalks are in disrepair, with an estimated cost of $1.5 billion to repair and bring these sidewalks up to modern accessibility standards, including curb ramps at intersections. In addition, the City is currently facing four civil rights lawsuits that have been filed for failing to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
People with vision loss also face barriers when street intersections lack tactile walking surface indicators at sidewalk curb ramps or are not equipped with audible pedestrian signals. In Kitchener, ON, pedestrians with vision loss have argued that they are at risk due to the location of pedestrian crossings at roundabouts, as there is no way for them to tell when it’s safe to cross the street. Traffic experts have argued that while moving the crosswalks to be outside the roundabouts would make crossing the streets easier for people with vision loss, that they would actually put other pedestrians at greater risk.
One potential solution for people with vision loss is a new smartphone application currently being developed at the University of Minnesota. The application is able to tell users with vision loss which direction they are heading, what street they are on, how many vehicle lanes they have to cross at intersections, and also allows users to request a walk signal simply by pushing a button on the phone by tying into existing Accessible Pedestrian Signals.