No matter how old you are, we can all admit technology like cell phones and computers has become increasingly more prevalent in our day-to-day lives. Some of us use it to watch TV, listen to music or even connect with our family and friends.
While there are benefits to using technology, there are also advantages of being able to unplug from electronic devices as well. Specifically, when it comes to directions and navigating to a new destination, researchers recommend ditching the GPS for a traditional paper map to improve memory and prevent cognitive decline.
According to a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers found orienteering, a sport in which people use a map and compass to navigate unfamiliar terrain, can be a helpful tool to sharpen memory and stave off dementia.
“Our results demonstrate that people who participate in the sport of orienteering report better spatial navigation and memory suggesting that orienteering could be a useful intervention for bolstering wayfinding abilities across the lifespan to help keep dementia at bay,” Jennifer Heisz, PhD, senior author of the study, associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University and a Canada Research Chair in brain health and aging, told Seasons.
What else to know about the sport of orienteering
An orienteer can use a map and compass to navigate new ground from point to point until they reach a designated location without using electronic devices like a GPS, Mill Etienne, MD, MPH, associate professor of Neurology at New York Medical College, told Seasons. The participant may run, walk, bike or use other methods of transportation depending on their ability.
“Orienteering challenges both your navigation skills and your physical fitness as it is typically a competition to see who will get to the finish line first so moving quickly is important in this sport,” Etienne said.
He added that this activity is similar to going through a scavenger hunt, but with the use of a map, compass and much larger terrain. It is also often organized professionally since numerous checkpoints are spread out that participants then have to find.
Study details and importance
Heisz and her colleagues recruited 158 healthy adults between the ages of 18 to 87 years old with different levels of orienteering experience and compared them to a physically active control group with little to no orienteering experience.
They found regardless of the participant’s age, expert orienteers reported superior use of navigational strategies and better spatial memory compared to the control group. Heisz explained this finding suggests that participation in the sport of orienteering may help prevent age-related cognitive decline and keep dementia at bay.
Heisz claims this research is important because it’s one of the first studies to examine whether expertise in the sport of orienteering impacts memory and because the ability to navigate and find your way around is one of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias.
“In Alzheimer’s disease, losing the ability to find one’s way is among the earliest symptoms, affecting more than half of all afflicted individuals, even in the mildest stage of the disease,” Heisz said. “Therefore, interventions designed to strengthen navigational abilities may also help stave off dementia.”
Etienne said this study also offers the possibility of a non-pharmacologic and drug-free approach to try and preserve one’s memory.
“As our world becomes increasingly automated, it is important to find ways to engage in activity that allows us to make use of various parts of our brain so that we can retain the important function of those brain regions,” he said. “Always remember the concept of ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Why using a paper map can help prevent dementia
According to Heisz, memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease is caused by damage to the hippocampus, however, exercise increases newborn neurons in the hippocampus to improve memory. In addition, she claims cognitive training can help those newborn neurons integrate into the existing neural network, which (when combined with physical exercise) can improve memory even more.
“Therefore, 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 exercising only,” she said.
Etienne added using a traditional paper map allows you to use important regions of the brain that are involved in memory. When people use a paper map they are also not relying on a GPS, which he claims does not require a great deal of thought or cognitive thinking.
Furthermore, just like people use their muscles regularly to keep them strong and toned, when you stop using those muscles, they will get smaller, Etienne said. This is a similar phenomenon to the use of your brain.
“Not using certain parts of the brain is thought to result in those parts of the brain getting smaller over time, which is known as brain atrophy,” he said. “That’s why activating your memory centers and areas involved in spatial orientation through the use of the old-fashioned maps can be very useful.”
How you can build spatial navigation and wayfinding skills
Experts say people do not need to wait until they are older to start engaging in activities to help preserve their brain function or improve their navigational skills. In fact, there are many forms of cognitive activities that are helpful in keeping your brain active, Etienne said.
Here are some everyday activities you can do to build spatial navigation skills and take care of your brain, according to Heisz and Etienne.
- Turn off the GPS and use a traditional paper map to find your way, especially in new towns or cities you may be exploring.
- Spatially challenge yourself by taking a new route for your walk, run, bike ride or car ride.
- Play certain games like chess which allow you to think ahead and visualize the next steps that you will take or that your opponent will take.
- Work on puzzles that can improve concentration and memory and reinforce connections between brain cells.
- Build things with LEGOs to creatively put pieces together and increase spatial exploration.
- Learn a new language or musical instrument which can strengthen your brain’s ability to focus and process information.
Etienne added there are other things that are useful in preserving your brain health including socializing with others, reading, eating healthy and exercising regularly.
“Taking care of your body and brain in these ways will contribute immensely to your longevity and improve the likelihood that you retain good cognitive skills in your later years,” he said. “Finding new ways to challenge your brain is good, so definitely use a map to explore different communities.”