Orienteering may help prevent cognitive decline, dementia

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In a study from McMaster University, scientists found the sport of orienteering, which draws on athleticism, navigational skills and memory, could help fight cognitive decline related to dementia.

They hypothesized that the physical and cognitive demands of orienteering, which integrates 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.

The team points to Alzheimer’s disease, in which losing the ability to find one’s way is among the earliest symptoms, affecting half of all afflicted individuals, even in the mildest stage of the disease.

In the study, researchers surveyed healthy adults, ranging in age from 18 to 87 with varying degrees of orienteering expertise (none, intermediate, advanced and elite).

They found people who participate in orienteering reported better spatial navigation and memory, suggesting that adding elements of wayfinding into regular workouts could be beneficial over the span of a lifetime.

The goal of orienteering is to navigate by running as quickly as possible over unfamiliar territory, finding a series of checkpoints using only a map and compass.

The most skillful athletes must efficiently switch between several mental tasks, making quick decisions while moving across the terrain at a rapid pace.

The sport is unique because it requires active navigation while making quick transitions between parts of the brain that process spatial information in different ways.

It is a skill that GPS systems have engineered out of modern life.

That may affect not only our ability to navigate but also affect our spatial processing and memory more generally because these cognitive functions rely on overlapping neural structures.

Researchers suggest there are two simple ways to incorporate more orienteering into daily life:

turn off the GPS and use a map to find your way when traveling and challenge yourself—spatially—by using a new route for your run, walk or bike ride.

If you care about brain health, please read studies about how the Mediterranean diet could protect your brain health, and blueberry supplements may prevent cognitive decline.

For more information about brain health, please see recent studies about antioxidants that could help reduce dementia risk, and how alcohol, coffee and tea intake influence cognitive decline.

The study was conducted by Jennifer Heisz et al and published in PLoS ONE.

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