More than 6.5 million people in the US were diagnosed with dementia in 2022. Every year, the number of older people with mild cognitive impairment that develops into dementia continues to grow. Despite slow medical breakthroughs in the quest for a cure, studies on preventing and reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are increasing, with nature as an integral part of the treatment. But do nature and outdoor activities help beat memory loss from aging?
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Nature and Its Power on Well-Being
For decades, scientists studied the benefits of nature to a person’s well-being and learned that exposure to nature helps patients recover faster. However, the benefits can vary.
Being with nature and interacting with the earth is your body’s innate response to heal and balance your mental, emotional, and physical state. Spending time outdoors calms a person’s stress levels, relaxes the brain, and improves social interaction and communication. In addition, exposure to different sceneries helps increase your creativity, sense of wonder, and empathy. While these connections are small, they reduce most feelings of loneliness and anxiety by exchanging them for peace of mind.
“We found evidence for associations between nature exposure and improved cognitive function, brain activity, blood pressure, mental health, physical activity, and sleep, while the results from experimental studies provide evidence of protective effects of exposure to natural environments on mental health outcomes and cognitive function.” – Marcia I. Pescador Jimenez, Ph.D., MS, M, Assistant Professor, Epidemiology Department, Boston University
Nature and Cognitive Function
Different conditions that cause cognitive impairment or brain function decline use the general term Dementia. When a person suffers from this, the transport of messages between neurons slows down. These blockages along your neural pathways create concentration, memory, and sensory issues. Without any stimulation for your brain, these pathways continue to weaken and, eventually, shut down.
When you spend time with nature, you expose your body to over 60 times the amount of natural light you get indoors. In addition, you have better access to fresh air, which increases your oxygen intake. These two elements are fundamental in brain function as it’s one of the organs using most of the oxygen your body takes in.
Light and oxygen support your brain by regulating the circadian rhythm, whose functions influence sleep, alertness, and appetite. A recent study also showed how a light oxidation reaction mixed with oxygen creates antibodies to counter amyloid formation in the brain. Amyloid plaques are toxic lumps of proteins forming between neurons that cause dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Connecting with the natural environment with outdoor activities also boosts one’s mental health by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. While many associate endorphins with pleasure, love, and happiness, it also reduces anxiety and depression. In addition, it also assists your learning, memory, motor system functions, heart rate stability, and digestion.
Outdoor activities also promote brain plasticity. Hiking or going for a 20-minute walk around the park or in the gardens stimulates new pathways between cells in your brain that handles speech, processing, coordination, and problem-solving.
“Bright light therapy intervention program of 30-min sessions provides promising outcomes and immediate positive effects on mood, stimulation level, blood oxygen saturation, and heart rate.” – Nuria Cibeira, General Health Psychologist, Department of Neuropsychology, Cefine Neurología
Nature as an Alternate Therapy for Dementia
Despite the numerous strides in studying dementia, it’s still a disease without any known cure. Health professionals and experts find that the best treatment for it is prevention. Memory loss and cognitive impairment come with age, but you can lessen their impact by keeping your brain stimulated.
For people suffering from dementia, spending and connecting with nature is essential to establish a good quality of life. Dementia patients are more prone to anxiety and depression due to their limited ability to communicate their needs and emotions. The longer they experience heavy bouts of these negative feelings, the faster their dementia symptoms progress. Spending time in healing gardens raises the patients’ spirits and offers passive enjoyment.
Consistent exposure and connection to nature help slow the progression of dementia and control the patient’s unstable levels of agitation, frustration, and aggression. Nature has the unique ability to calm the brain and balance hormone secretion.
Outdoor activities like walking, hiking, and gardening also help people with dementia by giving them a routine. Routines filled with movement under natural light and fresh air stimulate the brain and slow the emergence of dementia symptoms. In addition, gardening incites social engagement and invokes memories that can increase self-confidence and more life involvement.
Daily activities involving nature help regulate the circadian rhythm and sleep patterns, giving patients fewer sleep disturbances. Due to this, their brain and body rest better and provides them peace of mind.
“Garden visits had positive effects on mood, social interaction, depression, and agitation in people with dementia because of the multisensory, gentle stimuli of the natural environment.” – Sheng-Jung Ou, Professor and Dean of College of Design, Chaoyang University of Technology
Understanding the Healing Powers of Nature
For millions of years, humans interacted with nature for healing, nourishment, and peace of mind. Spending time in nature and connecting yourself to it with outdoor activities is something your body innately needs to speed up its recovery. The way it deals with cognitive impairments like dementia is similar. While it’s still an incurable disease, people can prevent dementia by going outside and creating routines that release happy hormones, invoke happy memories, and improve social connections.
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