The sport of orienteering, which relies on athleticism, navigation skills and memory, could be useful as an intervention or preventive measure to combat the cognitive decline associated with dementia, according to new research from McMaster University.
The researchers hypothesized that the physical and cognitive demands of orienteering, which integrates exercise and navigation, might stimulate parts of the brain that our ancient ancestors used for hunting and foraging. The brain evolved thousands of years ago to adapt to the harsh environment by creating new neural pathways.
These same brain functions are not as necessary to survive today due to modern conveniences like GPS apps and readily available food. 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 oversaw the research. “Without active navigation, we risk losing this neural architecture.”
Heisz points to Alzheimer’s disease, in which disorientation is one of the earliest symptoms, affecting half of all sufferers even in the mildest stage of the disease.
In the study published in the journal today Plus onethe researchers surveyed healthy adults aged 18 to 87 with different levels of orienteering expertise (none, intermediate, advanced and elite).
Individuals who participate in orienteering reported better spatial navigation and memory, suggesting that adding elements of wayfinding to regular training sessions could be beneficial throughout life.
“When it comes to brain training, the physical and cognitive demands of orienteering have the potential to give you more bang for your buck compared to just training,” says lead author Emma Waddington, a graduate student at the Department of Kinesiology who designed the study and is a coach and member of the national orienteering team.
The goal of orienteering is to navigate as quickly as possible over unfamiliar territory and find a series of checkpoints using only a map and compass. The most skilled athletes must efficiently switch between multiple mental tasks and make quick decisions while moving across terrain at breakneck speeds.
The sport is unique because 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 of the environment. Orienteers must quickly translate this information in real time in relation to their own positions in the environment as they complete the course.
It’s a capability that GPS systems have evolved out of modern life, researchers say. Not only can this affect our ability to navigate, but also our spatial processing and memory in general, since these cognitive functions rely on overlapping neural structures.
Researchers suggest there are two simple ways to incorporate more orienteering into everyday life: turn off GPS and use a map to find your way when you travel, and challenge yourself – spatially – by finding a new route Use it for your run, walk or bike ride.
“Orienteering is a sport for life. You often see participants aged 6 to 86 doing orienteering,” says Waddington. “My years of involvement in the sport has allowed me to understand the process behind learning navigational skills and inspired me to explore the uniqueness of orienteering and the scientific significance this sport can have for the aging population,” says Waddington.