Waze leads to brain haze? Here’s why using real maps instead of GPS could prevent dementia

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. 

YouTube video


  1. A no brainer. If you use GPS, you don’t have to think….just blindly follow. You don’t develop the need to figure out where you are, how you got there, landmarks, etc. You just blindly follow the voice….which often takes people into a dangerous area.
    We use a map on trips.

    1. And that’s all well and good until you take a turn into a traffic jam you didn’t know was there because nothing told you there was construction on that road. Using GPS isn’t an all or nothing thing. If you’re driving by yourself, it’s significantly safer to use GPS than to be cruising along trying to read a map. Automobile accidents can be pretty rough on the brain too. Or pulling over every three turns to see where you’re going next. There’s plenty you can do to keep your brain sharp when you’re not driving. Do brain puzzles, read, etc. Just saying you’ll use road maps to stave off dementia is like saying you’ll quit eating Hershey’s Kisses to avoid diabetes. There’s a bit more to it than that.

    2. Even across a big city – for years I was that guy closing streets (at 6 AM Saturdays) for just five hours during an advertised and legally permitted fund-raising run event in Dallas. Dozens of drivers would have temper tantrums because their GPS led them right into dead ends and barricades, and even traffic citations, because they would not read our signs and follow advice on simple alternate routes.

  2. I’ve never used GPS. It’s another electronic gadget that can be hacked and controlled from outside.

  3. I did orienteering in college as part of R.O.T.C. It definitely honed my directional skills and spatial awareness.

    1. I live in upstate NY can you recommend a group nearby which offers an orienteering course or know of any website I could contact for info?

      Thanks, T

  4. My dad used the old Hudson maps all the time in Minneapolis-St.Paul area. He still died of Alzheimer’s disease.

  5. It might be for some folks, that have that type of configuration in their brains. My wife doesn’t have a good sense of direction, and as she is now near 70, she shows no cognitive decline. She was a computer programmer/analyst and a quite successful one. Math and logic, and the design of systems frankly would also reduce cognitive decline if she is an example. Of course, she is now retired, but makes quilts, a fairly challenging hobby.

  6. Fine, except when you try to memorize 21 turns to get thru a big city, screw it up, and find yourself trying to do a U-turn across a 6 lane highway.

  7. If those under 40 don’t have GPS on their phones, how will they ever find their bathroom?

  8. “Study finds” is an overused cliche. Investigators dump these studies on the public for one purpose – to generate more funding. Studies NEVER generate negative results for that reason. Look for the qualifying adverbs – “could”, “may”,… By default, assume it means 1 chance in a thousand, unless otherwise stated.

  9. Darn, I have a built-in, biological GPS and need neither maps nor the electronic kind, What my future? If I have one.

  10. So having to deal with reader glasses. After cataract surgery no need for bifocals.
    Looking away from the road.
    No traffic ahead info.
    No fastest routing info.
    No verbal cues for turns or conditions ahead.

    I think I’ll stick with the GPS.
    On some trip I use two GPS mapping system. The in-car and iPhone. The in-car does not have conditions ahead, etc.

  11. I wouldn’t even know where to pick up a map anymore. They used to be in racks at gas stations. Where are they today?

    1. Truck stops are the best place to find them. They have everything! I buy a new atlas about every 5-7 years, and I also buy the large books for my individual state and any that I frequent.
      They break things down by county and grid to get the detail that a typical state map can’t give.

  12. The only time I use gps is going offshore,I don’t like to be lost out there. But when we travel by car it’s fun to get lost sometimes. Now where did I put my keys?

Comments are closed.