HAMILTON, Ontario — Turning off Waze or your favorite GPS app and using an old-fashioned map may be the best way to fight Alzheimer’s disease, a new study reveals. Researchers at McMaster University say orienteering, an outdoor sport that exercises the mind and body through navigation puzzles, can train the brain and stave off cognitive decline. The aim of orienteering is to navigate between checkpoints or controls marked on a special map. In competitive orienteering, the challenge is to complete the course in the quickest time.
For older adults, scientists say the sport — which sharpens navigational skills and memory — could become a useful intervention measure to fight off the slow decline related to dementia onset. They believe the physical and cognitive demands of orienteering can stimulate parts of the brain our ancient ancestors used for hunting and gathering.
The human brain evolved thousands of years ago to adapt to harsh environments by creating new neural pathways, the McMaster team explains. Those same brain functions are not always necessary today, however, thanks to GPS apps and food being readily available.
Unfortunately, the team says these skills fall into a “use it or lose it” situation.
“Modern life may lack the specific cognitive and physical challenges the brain needs to thrive,” says Jennifer Heisz, Canada Research Chair in Brain Health and Aging at McMaster University, in a media release. “In the absence of active navigation, we risk losing that neural architecture.”
Losing your sense of direction is a sign of Alzheimer’s
Prof. Heisz points to Alzheimer’s disease, where losing the ability to find one’s way is among the earliest symptoms, even in the mildest stage of the disease. In the new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, the research team surveyed healthy adults between 18 and 87 years-old with varying degrees of orienteering experience.
People who participated in orienteering displayed better spatial navigation and memory skills, suggesting that adding elements of wayfinding into their daily routines benefited them over their lifetime.
“When it comes to brain training, the physical and cognitive demands of orienteering have the potential to give you more bang for your buck compared to exercising only,” says lead author Emma Waddington, a grad student in the Department of Kinesiology who designed the study and is a coach and member of the national orienteering team.
Waddington says orienteering is a unique activity because it requires people to actively navigate while making quick transitions between parts of the brain that handle spatial information in different ways. For example, reading a map relies on the reader creating a third-person perspective of their environment. Orienteers need to quickly translate that information and apply it to their actual position within that environment, in real-time, and often while moving.
Turn off the GPS
In the digital world, however, GPS systems take these skills away from many people. They affect not only our ability to navigate but also how the brain processes spatial information and memory in general. For people looking to stave off dementia by orienteering, researchers suggest turning off the GPS and using a map to find your way when travelling. You can also challenge yourself spatially by using a new route for your daily run, walk, or bike ride.
“Orienteering is very much a sport for life. You can often see participants spanning the ages of 6 to 86 years old engaged in orienteering,” says Waddington.
“My long-term involvement in this sport has allowed me to understand the process behind learning navigational skills and I have been inspired to research the uniqueness of orienteering and the scientific significance this sport may have on the aging population.”
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.