Memory Walks for Healing

OHSU study finds benefits for aging brains

A unique program blending the physical activity of neighborhood walks with social engagement and reminiscing shows promise as a way of slowing mental decline, improving physical health, and even helping black residents and others process the grief associated with displacement from their homes, preliminary assessments and qualitative research shows.

The designer of the program is an African-American assistant professor of neurology at Oregon Health and Sciences University who spent some of her own upbringing in north and northeast Portland neighborhoods which have become much less diverse because of displacement from gentrification.

“My interest was in memory and how we remember our experiences, and to communicate moral values, what's important in life, through our stories,” Raina Croff, told the Portland Observer. Her work involved 21 African Americans 55 or older who were long time residents. Divided into groups of three, they would walk three times a week over six months to pre-designated, one mile routes, many of which are now dramatically changed.

Guided by a smart tablet, a GPS-triggered “memory marker” that would pop up historic photos, news clippings or other artifacts from the past, the participants would reminisce about their connection to the place, until walking to another “memory marker” which prompted more discussion in 10 minute intervals.

Called Sharing History through Active Reminiscence and Photo imagery, or SHARP, the study focuses on brain health while also serving as a way of preserving the stories of community black elders — the participants’ conversations were recorded and archived as oral histories.

Croff said that physical activity, social engagement, and reminiscencing— have all been proven individually to be good for brain health, “but we wanted to see what happens when we put these modes of healthy brain behaviors together,” she said.

The participants included people who were cognitively healthy and those who have experienced mild cognitive impairment. The mild cognitive impairment group showed the most improvement, according to a post-study assessment, which Croff said was “promising.”

For older African-Americans, brain healthy activities are especially important, Croff said, because members of this group are statistically twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and other mental health dementias as the general white population.

Disproportionate rates of chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension probably contribute to the higher impacts, she said, as well as cultural factors like unhealthy eating and inaccessibility to quality health information.

Many African Americans believe memory loss that is severe enough to impair daily functioning is natural to aging, even though it’s not, she added.

The results of the study are still fresh, having just been wrapped up in May. But so far, the benefits to overall mental health seem evident, though Croff cautions that she’s unsure if its due directly to participants’ behavior during the study or changes in behavior overall as a result of having gone through it, such as being inspired to walk, socialize, or reminisce more in their day-to-day life.

For 86 percent of the participants who completed the study, half of them had improved cognitive assessment scores at the end. In addition, 77 percent had decreased blood pressure, half experienced lost weight, and all of them reported improved mood since starting the walks, Croff said.