The sport of orienteering, which draws on athleticism, navigational skills and memory, could be useful as an intervention or preventive measure to fight cognitive decline related to dementia, according to new research from McMaster University.
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 harsh environment by creating new neural pathways.
Those same brain functions are not as necessary for survival today due to modern conveniences such as GPS apps and readily available food. Researchers suggest it is a case of “use it or lose it.”
“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, who supervised the research. “In the absence of active navigation, we risk losing that neural architecture.”
Heisz 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, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers surveyed healthy adults, ranging in age from 18 to 87 with varying degrees of orienteering expertise (none, intermediate, advanced and elite).