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More 'Life Space' Cuts Alzheimer's Risk

Cognitive function and the adventurous spirit

Older adults on the beachThink about your day-to-day routine: How many places do you usually go? If you're the type of person who is always out and about, who travels a lot or enjoys exploring new venues, you may be better off than those who sit at home all the time. 

That's because researchers at Rush have discovered that our "life space" is intimately linked with cognitive function. Life space is the extent to which we move through our environments as we carry out our daily lives — from home to garden to restaurants to workplace and beyond.

In a study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, researchers found that seniors who had a constricted life space were almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as seniors whose life space extended well beyond the home.

"Life space may represent a new way to identify, out of a group of older adults displaying no memory or thinking problems, who is likely to develop Alzheimer's disease," says Bryan James, PhD, an epidemiologist in the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center and the study's lead investigator.

Leaving home — for good

Participants in the study included 1,294 older adults living in the community taking part in two studies: the Rush Memory and Aging Project, a study of chronic conditions of aging involving older people from retirement communities and subsidized housing in Chicago, and the Minority Aging Research Study, which examines risk factors for cognitive decline in older blacks.

At the outset of the investigation, none of the participants showed signs of clinical dementia. Over up to eight years of follow-up, 180 developed Alzheimer's disease. Those who did tended to have more constricted life spaces. Specifically, those with a life space restricted to their immediate home environment at the start of the study were almost twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as those who traveled out of town.

Confinement to the home was also associated with an increased risk of mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor of Alzheimer's, and a more rapid rate of cognitive decline, the hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. This was true even when researchers factored in other variables that might explain the link, such as health problems known to be predictors of Alzheimer's disease like cardiovascular disease or depression.

"The reasons why a constricted life space is associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease is not clear," James says. "Certain disease processes in the brain may affect how far we move through the world years before they affect our memory and thinking. Or perhaps life space is an indicator of how much we are actively engaging and challenging our cognitive abilities.

"We don't yet have the answer," he adds. "But as we continue to search for it, we recommend that people — particularly older adults — get out as much as possible and enjoy the world beyond their front doors."