Researchers at the University of Tsukuba have discovered a connection between the risk of functional disability or death in older adults and the distance they are willing to walk or cycle to reach common destinations (such as a friend’s house or a supermarket).
As they age, physical or cognitive decline can make it difficult for some older adults to navigate their community, affecting their quality of life and becoming a burden on society. However, a recent study by researchers at the University of Tsukuba demonstrates that a willingness to travel longer distances by walking or cycling may help reduce the risk of early functional disability and mortality.
A recent study published in Health and Place presents a model linking death and functional disability rates in older adults to the distances they are willing to travel on foot or bicycle for common community trips. The research found that older adults who were only comfortable with short distances – such as 500 meters or less for walking, or 1 kilometer or less for cycling – faced higher risks of functional disability and death.
“Forms of active travel, like walking and cycling, contribute to maintaining adequate levels of physical activity as we age, and because these forms of travel also facilitate other activities like social visits or grocery shopping, we reasoned that the distances older adults considered acceptable for traveling by these means could be a useful proxy,” explains lead author of the study Professor Okura Tomohiro.
To determine whether this proxy information could be linked to future disability or death, the research team surveyed a large sample of adults (residents of Kasama City, Ibaraki, Japan) aged 65 years or older in 2013 to obtain baseline data. The team also collected follow-up data over a period of almost 8 years. They then used these data to create several models, to explore the potential effects of physical characteristics like age and sex, baseline travel preferences, and geographic characteristics like terrain and population.
“For a meaningful model,” Professor Okura Tomohiro says, “it was necessary that we capture data, not only for a wide variety of characteristics—to account for differences inherent in an older adult population—but also over a sufficiently long time period—to allow natural life changes to evolve.”
The study’s findings could help researchers and policymakers better understand the impact of some of the challenges experienced by individuals as they age. This knowledge can be used to develop ways to better assist vulnerable older individuals or to design services to improve access to the community for older adults.
“Acceptable walking and cycling distances and functional disability and mortality in older Japanese adults: An 8-year follow-up study” by Kenji Tsunoda, Koki Nagata, Takashi Jindo, Yuya Fujii, Yuki Soma, Naruki Kitano and Tomohiro Okura, 17 December 2022, Health & Place.
The study was funded by a JSPS KAKENHI Grant-in-Aid for Young Scientists, a grant from the Meiji Yasuda Life Foundation of Health and Welfare, and a grant from the Japan Sport Association.