Just walk away from Dementia ~
“When it comes to healthy aging, exercise is about the closest thing we have to a miracle drug.” ~ Dr. Scott Kaiser, geriatrician and director of Geriatric Cognitive Health, St. John’s Health Center.
Back in July, this column explored the many benefits of walking. Little did this author know that a landmark study on the relationship between walking and dementia would be released in early September 2022.
That said, we need to revisit the concept of walking to understand the broad implications of the U.K. study reported in JAMA Neurology. The Journal of the American Medical Association is a peer-reviewed journal.
The following information does not come from Facebook, YouTube, Twitter or any other social media platform offering dubious sources of medical information. Nor does it come from that brother-in-law you can’t stand who heard it from the guys in his weekly poker game.
The study was conducted under the rigorous controls employed in the scientific method. This procedure is a trustworthy source of information based upon systematic observations, measurement, and the data-based development of hypotheses.
Hopefully, the extraordinary results of this study will be borne out by continued research.
Let’s first strip the study down to the bare-bone findings.
According to the JAMA article, 78,000 people, ages 40 to 79, participated in the seven-year study. The dramatic results suggest that walking about 10,000 steps regularly cuts the risk of dementia in half. (The exact number of steps was 9,826 steps or approximately five miles.)
Any disease in which the risk can be halved by walking is worth noting. But there’s more.
By convincing sedentary people to walk a mere 3,800 steps daily, they may reduce the risk of dementia by 25 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, those who develop the habit of walking faster and farther may reap the benefit of reducing risk by upwards of 70 percent or more.
As a 73-year-old man who purposefully walks out to his shed to fetch something only to get there and discover he can’t remember what that something was, walking at a pace of 112 steps per minute sounds like a miracle drug that doesn’t cost one red cent.
As I write this, you cannot see me, but I am vigorously thumbing my nose at “Big Pharma.” (Actually, I am using another digit.)
Before we move on to discuss the implications of this landmark study, let’s do a brief review of what the medical community has universally been saying for years about the relationship between exercise and health.
From my research, which consists of reading several trustworthy medical sources, cardiovascular exercise, especially walking, can reduce the risk of many common diseases associated with aging and poor lifestyle choices.
In July’s column on the art of walking, we examined a Canadian study of Amish men and women who walk an average of 18,000 and 14,000 steps per day, respectively. The obesity rate of Amish is only four percent compared to 3 percent in the general population.
Yet, Amish people rarely adopt the latest diet fad or go to the gym – they walk and perform physical work. Just look at some of B.J. Gudmundsson’s photos depicting farmers, rail workers and loggers of yesteryear – they often look like Olympic athletes.
Few doctors would disagree that exercise promotes health by reducing blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, boosting immunity, weight loss and stress reduction.
Walking, in particular, has added benefits beyond many other forms of exercise.
Balance is something that few of us give much thought to when we are young. However, balance deterioration can lead to falls and often result in broken bones. When you’re young, and your bones are strong, a fractured bone may only result in the inconvenience of waiting out the healing process.
As we age, we lose bone density, and this can lead to osteoporosis or the lesser form of bone density loss, osteopenia. A broken bone, such as a hip, can be life-threatening for those suffering from weak and porous bones.
Walking helps to develop and maintain good balance. Additionally, if you walk on moderately uneven surfaces, such as on a trail, not only do you work many support muscles that can prevent joint and ankle injuries, but you can reduce the risk of falling.
Now, to be sure, I am not suggesting that if you are sedentary and are at risk of falling and breaking a bone, you head right out on a rocky, root-infested trail. Wisdom dictates that you confine your walking to paths you can negotiate comfortably and safely.
Many sufferers of osteoporosis and osteopenia walk with hiking poles to prevent a fall.
The human sense of balance is a complex system that depends on accurate visual information, joints, tendons, muscles and the inner ear. Various parts of the brain interpret this data and provide balance.
Human balance is a finely tuned system resulting from millions of years of evolutionary changes required to take humans out of trees and walk upright.
So, we can now visualize how walking can improve balance, but how does walking enhance the strength of bones?
Weight-bearing activities like walking stimulate bone tissue growth through the tension imposed directly on the bone by the muscles and tendons. This combination of forces acting upon the bones results in increased calcium deposition. Additionally, the same forces stimulate specific cells to form new bone.
Unfortunately, cycling does not offer the same bone-strengthening benefits as walking. Those with osteopenia or osteoporosis who enjoy cycling should consider alternating between walking and cycling. To be effective, weight-bearing exercises should be practiced a minimum of three times per week.
For those with severe osteoporosis, caution is called for before involvement in any strenuous form of weight-bearing exercise. Body positions like forward flexion should be avoided due to the compression stress imposed on the vertebra. This can cause fractures to the already weakened bones in the spine.
Suppose your health is already compromised by age, poor bone health, obesity, high blood pressure, or a history of osteoporotic fractures. In that case, you should discuss any form of exercise with your doctor before proceeding.
In next week’s For Your Consideration, we will take a deep dive into the various forms of dementia, which can be prevented or reduced by simply walking regularly. We will also examine the science behind how walking can reduce the risk of dementia.
Although few in number, we will also entertain the criticisms of the study.
Please remember that this study in no way implies that walking offers a cure for any form of dementia. But instead, it provides a non-medication and enjoyable way to reduce the risk of certain types of dementia.
Most of us fear losing the independence and dignity that dementia threatens. If you are middle age or older, I urge you to consider how we can dramatically improve our chances of never losing our cognitive abilities.
It may require nothing more than simply walking away from dementia.