In many cases, small lapses in memory don’t mean a lot. After all, most of us have experienced occasional memory blips throughout our lives.
From the youngest to the oldest of adults, we’ve all lost a remote control, missed a scheduled appointment or two, and forgotten to return any number of phone calls.
And who doesn’t forget what day it is every now and then?
Still, as we grow older, increasing forgetfulness can become a cause for concern. That’s because it can sometimes be an early sign of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia. And it often goes undiagnosed.
In fact, it’s estimated that only about 8% of expected MCI cases are actually diagnosed. That means 92% of people who are potentially experiencing MCI don’t even know it!
In these cases, cognitive decline might not be recognized until behavior becomes what I call “consistently inconsistent.”
For example, that missing remote control, book or set of keys probably isn’t a big issue if you can find the item by retracing your steps. But when things often go missing and aren’t found for weeks or months, it becomes apparent that a lot more than mild forgetfulness is going on.
And while it may be acceptable to miss an appointment every now and then, when you forget them with any sort of frequency it signals a disconnect between what’s going on in your brain and what’s going on in your life.
Other signs of cognitive impairment include repeatedly asking the same questions, problems maintaining a conversation, struggling with vocabulary, inability to remember words or names, and repeating things over and over again. Disorientation and personality changes are also very common.
And here’s something that you might find very surprising.
Difficulty Making Turns While Walking Linked to MCI and Dementia
One of the first things affected by cognitive decline is our spatial navigation skills. These skills are sort of like an internal compass. They guide us in finding routes to travel, remembering directions and knowing when to make turns.
And the fact is, spatial navigation tests have extremely high accuracy when it comes to identifying MCI patients, with somewhere between 80% to 92% accuracy.
Walking tests are particularly insightful when it comes to making turns.
For example, a November 2023 study separated participants into three groups; healthy younger adults, elderly adults, and patients with MCI. These folks were asked to complete a walking task while wearing virtual reality goggles. This allowed them to make all of the movements necessary for the exercise.
Each of them was guided along a specific route using numbered cones to direct them. They had to walk the route several times under different conditions. In one condition, all of ground textures were replaced by smooth surfaces. In another, all of the landmarks were removed.
It turned out that the only group who struggled were those with Alzheimer’s related MCI. They consistently had trouble navigating the turns along the path.
This indicates that their internal compasses were unable to automatically update the physical location of their bodies.
Regular Walking, Nordic Walking and Golf for Better Cognitive Function
All of this may explain why people who engage in more walking activities are less like to develop MCI or dementia and have better visual-spatial function.
In a very interesting study, researchers used accelerometers to track the number of steps that 78,500 people took each day, along with their walking speed.
Seven years later, the results were simply amazing.
Overall, the people who walked about 9,800 steps each day at mixed speeds were 51% less likely to develop dementia, and those who walked as little as 3,800 steps a day were about 25% less likely.
There is another way of walking that is even better for your brain. It’s called Nordic walking. Since it requires the use of walking sticks that resemble ski poles, it’s often referred to as “ski walking.” It’s a popular sport in Scandinavia and other European countries.
Not only does it improve visual-spatial abilities. It also helps improve processing speed, verbal memory and attention.
And golfing! Walking those courses is great for your brain. It’s sort of like walking and turning on the path in the study mentioned above, but without the numbered orange cones. So it’s great for your visual and spatial orientation.
These are just a few proven, non-pharmacological ways to improve your spatial navigation skills and protect your brain at the same time. For more brain-saving ideas, click here.
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Kettinen J, Tikkanen H, Hiltunen M, Murray A, Horn N, Taylor WR, Venojärvi M. Cognitive and biomarker responses in healthy older adults to a 18-hole golf round and different walking types: a randomised cross-over study. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2023 Oct 12;9(4):e001629.