Orientation sport, which relies on sport, navigational skills, and memory, may be useful as an intervention or preventative measure to fight dementia-related cognitive decline, according to new research from McMaster University.
The researchers hypothesized that the physical and cognitive demands of orientation, which combine exercise with navigation, may stimulate parts of the brain that our ancient ancestors used for hunting and gathering. The brain evolved thousands of years ago to adapt to the harsh environment by creating new neural pathways.
Brain functions themselves are not necessary to survive today due to modern conveniences such as GPS apps and readily available food. Researchers refer to it as a “use it or lose it” situation.
“Modern life may lack the specific cognitive and physical challenges that the brain needs to develop,” says Jennifer Hayes, Canada’s Research Chair in Brain Health and Aging at McMaster University, who led the research. “In the absence of active navigation, we risk losing that neural structure.”
Heisz points to Alzheimer’s disease, in which the loss of the ability to find one’s way is among the early symptoms, affecting half of all sufferers, even in the lowest stages of the disease.
In the study published today in the journal Plus oneIn this study, the researchers surveyed healthy adults, ages 18 to 87, with varying degrees of mentoring experience (none, intermediate, advanced and elite).
People who participate in orientation report better spatial navigation and memory, suggesting that adding wayfinding items to regular workouts can be beneficial over a lifetime.
“When it comes to training the brain, the physical and cognitive demands of steering have the potential to give you more bang for your buck than just aerobic exercise,” says lead author Emma Waddington, PhD, a graduate student in the department of kinesiology who designed the study. He is a coach and member of the national mentoring team.
The goal of steering is to navigate by running as fast as possible over unfamiliar territory, finding a series of checkpoints using only a map and compass. The most skilled athletes must efficiently switch between many mental tasks, making quick decisions while navigating the terrain at a rapid pace.
Sports are unique in that they require active navigation while making rapid transitions between parts of the brain that process spatial information in different ways. For example, reading a map is based on a third person perspective in relation to the environment. Mentors must quickly translate that information about their positions within the environment, in real time, as they run the course.
Researchers say it’s a skill engineered by GPS systems from modern life. This may affect not only our ability to navigate, but also our spatial processing and memory in general because these cognitive functions depend on overlapping neural structures.
The researchers suggest that there are two simple ways to incorporate more orientation into everyday life: Turn off GPS, use a map to find your way when traveling, and challenge yourself – spatially – with a new running, walking or bike route. .
“Guiding is very much a lifelong sport. You can often see participants from 6 to 86 years old participating in the sport of mentoring,” says Waddington. “My long-term involvement in the sport has allowed me to understand the process behind learning navigational skills, and has inspired me to research the uniqueness of steering and the scientific significance that the sport may have on older populations,” says Waddington.