Elderly should live in areas with fewer crossroads to reduce risk of getting lost, dementia study finds

Lizzie Roberts
·3-min read
After a new study found people with dementia have a higher risk of losing their way in areas where the road networks are dense and complicated.   - Barry Batchelor/PA 
After a new study found people with dementia have a higher risk of losing their way in areas where the road networks are dense and complicated. - Barry Batchelor/PA

Older people should live in areas with fewer crossroads to reduce their chances of getting lost, researchers have suggested.

After a new study found people with dementia have a higher risk of losing their way in areas where the road networks are dense and complicated.

The findings could also influence future town planning, charities say, with neighbourhoods designed to minimise the risk of a person going missing.

Previous research has suggested around 70 per cent of people with dementia may go missing at least once, with some at risk of going missing multiple times.

In this latest study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, experts studied three years of "missing person" police reports for people with dementia to see if there was a link to the outdoor environment they went missing from.

The study was led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) with University College London, the University of Leeds, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, and Norfolk Constabulary.

Researchers looked at 210 police records of people with dementia going missing in Norfolk between January 2014 to December 2017 - comparing each case to the nearby road network.

People with dementia can have difficulty with navigating, so the researchers looked at the impact of the complexity of road networks, intersections and overall organisation.

They found that the higher the density of intersections, the more complicated they were and the less grid-like the overall layout, the greater the risk for dementia sufferers to get lost.

“Our results overall suggest that increased intersection density, intersection complexity, and road orientation entropy may all be environmental risk factors causing people with dementia to go missing,” the researchers said.

Dementia risk factors
Dementia risk factors

PhD student Vaisakh Puthusseryppady, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said: "We think this is because each road intersection represents a point at which a person needs to make a critical navigation decision.

"The more intersections there are, the more complex these intersections are, and the more disorganised the overall road network is - the bigger the problem for people with dementia.

"This is because these factors can make it more likely for people with dementia to make an error and make a wrong turn, causing them to get lost and go missing."

Prof Michael Hornberger, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said there can be "life-threatening consequences" when people with dementia go missing.

He added he hopes the findings will help people predict which areas people with dementia may be most likely to go missing from, and help experts develop safeguarding measures to prevent them disappearing.

For example, carers may use routes with fewer intersections when planning for independent journeys, and recommend GPS tracking devices in complex networks.

And roads in neighbourhoods with a high number of older people could be designed to be more straight and ordered with simpler intersections.

Emma Bould, programme partnerships manager at the Alzheimer's Society, said the research could tackle the problem of people going missing with dementia “in a radical way” by, “influencing town planning to build safe, secure and easy-to-navigate high streets and neighbourhoods”.

“Often what's good for people with dementia is good for everybody,” she added.

“Having a road, or a layout, or a building which is easy to navigate, has clear lines of sight, is good for people who may be new to the area… (and) we'd call on more local authorities and town planners to make sure that they consider older people, when developing new developments.”