Orienteering, which relies on athleticism, navigation skills and memory, could be useful as an intervention or preventative measure to combat dementia-related cognitive decline, according to new research from McMaster University.
The researchers 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 hostile environment by creating new neural pathways.
Those same brain functions are not as necessary for survival today due to modern conveniences like GPS apps and readily available food. The researchers suggest it’s a case of “use it or lose it.”
“Modern life may lack the specific cognitive and physical challenges that the brain needs to thrive,” says Jennifer Heisz, Canada research chair in brain health and aging at McMaster University, who supervised the research. “In the absence of active navigation, we risk losing that neural architecture.”
Heisz points to Alzheimer’s disease, in which loss of the ability to orientate is one of the first symptoms and affects half of those affected, even in the mildest stage of the disease.
In the study, published today in the journal plus oneThe researchers surveyed healthy adults, ranging in age from 18 to 87, with varying degrees of orienteering experience (none, intermediate, advanced, and elite).
People who engage in orienteering reported better spatial navigation and memory, suggesting that adding elements of orienteering into regular training could be beneficial throughout life.
“When it comes to brain training, the physical and cognitive demands of targeting have the potential to give you more for your money compared to just exercising,” says lead author Emma Waddington, a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology who designed the study. and she is a coach and member of the national orienteering team.
The goal of orienteering is to navigate by running as fast as possible through unfamiliar territory, finding a series of checkpoints using only a map and compass. The most skilled athletes must efficiently switch between various mental tasks, making quick decisions as they move across the field at a fast pace.
The sport is unique in that it requires active navigation while making rapid transitions between parts of the brain that process spatial information in different ways. For example, reading a map depends on a third-person perspective relative to the environment. Facilitators must quickly translate that information in relation to their own positions within the environment, in real time, while taking the course.
It’s a skill that GPS systems have created out of modern life, the researchers say. That can affect not only our ability to navigate, but also our spatial processing and memory in general because these cognitive functions rely on overlapping neural structures.
The researchers suggest that there are two simple ways to incorporate more orientation into daily life: turn off GPS and use a map to find your way when traveling and challenge yourself, spatially, by using a new running, walking or biking route. . .
“Orienteering is very much a lifelong sport. You can often see participants between the ages of 6 and 86 taking part in orienteering,” says Waddington. “My long-term involvement in this sport has allowed me to understand the process behind the learning of navigation skills and has inspired me to investigate the uniqueness of orienteering and the scientific importance that this sport may have in the aging population.” Waddington says.