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25 July 2019

Free bus rides essential for healthy brain function

A new study by researchers from King’s has found that the introduction of the free bus pass for pensioners in England some 13 years ago has had a positive effect on the brain health of older people.

People taking a ride on a bus
People taking a ride on a bus

Maintaining healthy brain functions, such as memory, information retrieval and processing, and attention, is critical for autonomy and wellbeing in older age. Around one fifth of the UK population are currently aged 65 or older and global trends of rapid population ageing suggest that physically, socially and intellectually active lifestyles protect against the decline in brain function associated with ageing and more serious cognitive impairments like dementia.

Expanding on earlier studies of the benefits of the free bus pass for physical activity, mental health, and quality of life, a team of researchers from the Institute of Gerontology at King’s have shown that use of free public transport among the over 60s promotes better brain function, particularly memory.

The team used data from a cohort of over 60s residents living in England who were asked about their public transport use and underwent cognitive tests before and after becoming eligible for the free bus pass. This allowed the researchers to determine whether the introduction of the free bus pass encouraged people to use public transportation more often and whether free bus pass users had better cognitive test scores compared with those who did not use the free bus pass.

Results show that the increased use of public transport led to better overall cognitive test scores and memory test scores. Lead researcher Erica Reinhard, Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at King's College London, said: “The free bus pass encourages older people to use public transport more often, which increases their participation in physical, social, and mentally-stimulating activities. Staying socially connected and mentally engaged protects against decline in brain function. Additionally, physical activity bolsters healthy brain structure and function.” 

“Our findings suggest making transportation more affordable offers a number of benefits for the health and well-being of older people. Access to public transport is important for pensioners because we are more likely to have less income and stop driving after retirement, when the risks of social isolation and worsening brain function increase.”

Dr Ludovico Carrino, Institute of Gerontology at the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, King's College London

Referring to the recent debate about changing pensioners’ benefits which includes limiting free bus passes, Professor of Public Policy and Global Health and Director of the Institute of Gerontology at the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Mauricio Avedano added: “The findings of our study suggest that public transportation policies may serve as public health tools to promote active lifestyles and healthy brain function among older people.

Previous research from the King’s group has also linked the free bus pass to increases in social engagement such as volunteering and spending time with children and friends, and reductions in depressive symptoms and loneliness. Studies have further documented how a bus ride itself can be an opportunity for social interaction and group travel.

In the UK, the older person’s free bus pass, introduced in 2006, allows people to travel for free on public buses throughout the country. 

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Mauricio Avendano

Visiting Professor of Public Policy & Global Health