The research also showed that white adults had a larger protective benefit than Black ones. Researchers believe this likely shows the impact of broad, structural systems of racism that limit and distort Black populations’ access to such spaces.
“This isn’t a one-size-fits-all finding. We do see that access to these neighborhood sites diverges along different axes of power and privilege, including race, gender and socioeconomic status,” said Michael Esposito, an assistant professor of sociology at Washington University. He led the studies’ quantitative analysis.
Each study used a mixed-method analysis. Interviews and analysis of a small group of older adults in an urban area were compared to a survey of a much larger, nationally representative group of older adults. Finlay learned about how 125 older adults in the Minneapolis metropolitan area lived in their communities. The results were tested against a group of 30,000 people in the REGARDS study.
“Jessica’s qualitative work gave us clues about where people might have these interactions they need to promote their cognitive health, and we used that as a starting point to build out quantitative models, to see if these observations held,” Esposito said. “Using the REGARDS data, we could figure out what environmental conditions people with higher cognitive function scores experienced and what external conditions people who displayed lower cognitive function scores had in common.”
Senior centers and organizations such as Veterans of Foreign Wars or racial or ethnic organizations were some places of socialization more positively linked to protecting cognitive health. Neighborhoods with high densities of parks, fitness and sports recreation centers and walkable destinations had better cognitive health associations.
The best cognitive benefit came from museums and other cultural sites, but researchers found a greater effect for white populations.
“Moving forward, we’re looking at differences by person and by place — so for example, differences in protective cognitive benefits by men or women or nonbinary adults, by education levels and by race,” said Finlay said. “Understanding these differences might help inform community-level interventions that are more targeted to those who are most at risk, which include marginalized and underserved communities, who have higher rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s risk.”
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