The age-old suggestion that men have a better sense of direction than women is one of the world's oldest gender cliches.

But now scientists setting out to prove once and for all if that is the case have found the difference in ability is actually minuscule - and depends almost entirely on where people live.

Researchers assessing data from over half a million people across 57 counties found that in societies where gender equality is more equal, women are virtually as good as men. A country's GDP also had a significant effect, the Daily Telegraph reports.

A further strand is that teenagers have the best navigation skills, as they generally decline with age, according to the data - while those with "viking blood" have the best of all.

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The study, by UCL and the University of East Anglia published in the journal Current Biology, found people from Nordic nations, North Americans and Antipodeans rank top.

The experiment is actually a computer game, Sea Hero Quest, that has had more than four million players and has been developed to aid understanding into spatial navigation - a key indicator in Alzheimer's disease.

It's a nautical adventure to save an old sailor's lost memories and with a touch of a smartphone screen, you chart a course round desert islands and icy oceans. The game records the player's sense of direction and navigational ability.

Due to its popularity, the game has turned into the world's biggest dementia research experiment.

"We've found that the environment you live in has an impact on your spatial navigation abilities," said the study's lead author, Professor Hugo Spiers.

"We're continuing to analyse the data and hope to gain a better understanding of why people in some countries perform better than others."

For the current study, researchers restricted the data to those who had provided their age, gender and nationality, and were from countries with at least 500 participants.

As part of their analysis, the research team corrected for video game ability by comparing participants' main results to their performance in tutorial levels, which assessed peoples' natural ability with video games.

The researchers suggested people performed better in wealthier countries as well because they had better education standards, health and an ability to travel.

However, countries with an national interest in orienteering or sport relying on navigations, such as the Nordic countries, Canada and Australia, also played a factor, they suggested.

"Our findings suggest that sex differences in cognitive abilities are not fixed, but instead are influenced by cultural environments, such as the role of women in society," said study co-author Dr Antoine Coutrot, who completed the research at UCL before moving to the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Gender equality has previously been found to eliminate differences in maths performance in school. The current study is the first to connect gender inequality to a more specific cognitive measure.

The study was conducted by researchers at UCL, the University of East Anglia, McGill University, Bournemouth University, ETH Zurich and Northumbria University.

"The data from Sea Hero Quest is providing an unparalleled benchmark for how human navigation varies and changes across age, location and other factors. The ambition is to use these data insights to inform the development of more sensitive diagnostic tools for diseases like Alzheimer's, where navigational abilities can be compromised early on," said Tim Parry, Director at Alzheimer's Research UK, which funded the analysis.