Can our environment support our brain health in later life?
An ECR grant winner's research into the links between our environment and brain health has been used to inform a forthcoming World Health Organisation (WHO) report on healthy ageing.
A local park, a corner shop or a community centre within walking distance are no longer simply the back drop to our day-to-day activities at home. As social spaces, they impact brain health. In this new study, Dr Yu-Tzu combined Google Maps data with UK and international cohorts to investigate features of our local environments and their potential to support our brain health in later life.
Dr Yu-Tzu Wu - an early career researcher at KCL - used her DPUK ECR grant to develop a new method for investigating the effect of environmental factors on brain health. The findings from her international research is being used to inform the WHO's forthcoming report on healthy ageing.
Environment and dementia
Dr Wu used GIS data from Google Maps and Open Street Map to assess the distribution of green spaces and local services in four regions of the world with very different characteristics: the UK, China, the Dominican Republic and Mexico. She then compared this information with international dementia data using DPUK's Data Portal. As there is considerable variation in how people interact with their environment both between and within these areas, it was important that Dr Wu travelled to the areas she investigated. This enabled her to compare the online data sources and the real situations on the ground in the local areas.
"The ECR grant enabled me to travel to China and to have first-hand experience on how older people interact with their local environment in daily life. It was an exciting trip, which provides valuable information on critical issues related to environmental changes and population ageing in different areas. Thanks to the research I was able to do, I was invited to prepare a background paper for the WHO peer review meeting of contributors to the global report on healthy ageing.
It feels exciting to have played my part in contributing to such an important and current area of public health policy.
The next steps for me are to expand my research and apply the methods developed from this study to other cohort studies. I'm looking forward to develop international collaborations with other research teams who are interested in this topic.”
Supporting junior scientists' careers
Dr Wu won a DPUK ECR Grant. Many ECR grant awardees have gone on to take up opportunities to progress their careers that they wouldn't otherwise have had.
- Older people who live far from services such as post offices and shops were associated with higher risk of dementia, even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors.
- Poor access to local services and increased risk of dementia was more closely associated in low to middle income countries compared to the UK.
- Use of a new method to identify environmental features which relate to cognitive health in later life, using publicly-accessed GIS data.
- How GIS data and other online sources of environmental data can be used to investigate how the environment may support brain health in older people.
- How GIS data and other online sources of environmental data can be used to enrich existing cohort data.
What does this mean for health policy?
- Dr Wu's research is being used by the WHO in its forthcoming report on healthy ageing. The report will consider recommendations for measuring and monitoring three key components of healthy ageing - intrinsic capacity, functional ability and the environment. Dr Wu's research contributes to the body of evidence on the role that the environment can play in healthy ageing.
Research shows that exercise and being active socially reduce the risk of dementia in later life. Dr Wu's findings add to the body of evidence revealing that access to local services might modify the risk of dementia.
More impact case studies
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Researchers will carry out additional PET scanning of 100 people who have already had PET scans as part of their involvement in two existing health study cohorts – EPAD and PREVENT. The extra information they collect on the 'tau' protein, when combined with existing data from these participants, will create a very rich dataset for modelling the early stages of Alzheimer's disease and subsequent dementia.
The New Therapeutics into Alzheimer's Disease (NTAD) study is looking to detect markers of the disease before symptoms show. These markers for the disease will be used to test whether experimental treatments can delay, or even prevent, the progression of the disease.