We must start with science and empathy and this means building partnerships towards a common purpose. This is what we have put in place with HUME to create this resource for science-informed design.
Why is it Important
The global population aged 60 years or over numbered 962 million in 2017, more than twice as large as in 1980 when there were 382 million older persons worldwide. The number of older persons is expected to double again by 2050 when it is projected to reach nearly 2.1 billion. Cognitive impairment is a major health and social issue due to an increasingly aged population which creates a strain on economies. Many cognitive abilities, including episodic memory, executive function, and processing speed, decline with age. Understanding the causes and protective factors of age-related cognitive decline becomes urgent given how quickly human populations worldwide are aging. But what if the brain can in fact generate new brain cells and grow even as it ages? And what if design can facilitate it? That is the neurogenesis hypothesis.
To explore how design can positively affect higher order cognitive functions, and reduce cognitive decline, by creating stimulating enriched environments that foster creativity, promote positivity, and reduce stress.
What We Did
With a commitment to coalition-based research, HKS Research partnered with European think-tank HUME to develop a research report that is relevant to and interacts with designers and decision makers. This knowledgebase was then used to guide ideation sessions that navigate the evidence-base and catalyze innovative design solutions to promote brain health.
A comprehensive literature review was conducted by researchers at HUME in collaboration with HKS, establishing what is known in the neurobiological literature as well as the environmental psychology literature.
What We Found
- Aging is a global trend and affects ALL of us. We must avoid stereotypes associated with aging.
- Not all abilities decline equally with age. Speed of processing, memory, spatial ability and reasoning are particularly vulnerable.
- During COVID, our seniors have been disproportionately affected. As we move forward, there is risk that we only address physical rather than social and cognitive needs.
- The brain is malleable and can generate new connections through neurogenesis.
- Enriched environments that promote sensory, motor, cognitive, and social engagement can aid neurogenesis and prevent cognitive decline.
- Complex-place contexts (enrichment + engagement) and positive associations can help strengthen cognitive activity and reduce stress. Engagement with place via creativity and art can create complex-place context to aid memory retrieval.
Insights were synthesized into a report with key take-aways and design prompts. These were further developed into a framework for evidence-based ideation workshops.
What the Findings Mean
Designers and decision-makers working within the context of senior living, workplace, hospitality, neighborhood design, or any typology where older persons are users, can use this report to ideate on strategies that can directly impact brain health.
We are all aging. By prioritizing brain health, we can be inter-generational in our design approach and work towards a healthy brain — just as we would a healthy body or healthy environment. Enriched environments designed to support brain health allow us to actively flourish and live lives that are rich in experiences, rather than merely survive and mitigate disease.
Hume: Itai Palti, Natalia O, Maighdlyn H., Aishwarya N.
HKS: Upali Nanda, Melissa Hoelting, Rebecca Soja, Divya Nautiyal, Grant Warner