Just Walk Away from Dementia
“That means that over 90 percent of our health and longevity is in our own hands.” Sanjay Gupta – referring to healthy choices in lifestyle.
Forewarned is forearmed
Research linking walking to a reduced risk of dementia is not new. A 2007 article in the journal Neurology found that walking reduced the risk of Vascular Dementia by approximately 30 percent. This type of cognitive impairment is second only to Alz-heimer’s as the leading form of dementia.
I promised in last week’s column to provide more detail on the UK study on walking and dementia featured in JAMA Neurology earlier this month.
There were 78,430 participants involved in the cohort study that spanned seven years. A cohort study is one in which the volunteers are monitored for a lengthy period, generally years.
The key to being a “cohort” study is that there is an effort to confirm that the participants share common characteristics regarding general health and physical activities. The results are then compared to a sedentary control group.
The study was nearly equally divided between men and women, 44.7 percent male and 55.3 percent female. (Females have a much higher propensity for dementia than men.)
Study participants agreed to wear wristband accelerometers 24 hours per day throughout the study period. The group was further divided into those walking at a pace of 40 steps per minute and those exceeding 40 steps.
Variability controls at the start of the study included the age of participants, 41 to 79 years old, no smoking history, diet, socio-economic status, and overall health. They all started the study with somewhat equal health and lifestyle, including the absence of any detectable cognitive impairment.
The results of this study were that after the seven-year study period, only 1.1 percent (866 participants) presented with some form of dementia. Research conducted by our military a few years earlier yielded similar results.
The rate of dementia among the general population is 1.6 percent and rising. There are currently an estimated 55 million sufferers of dementia worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that this number will increase to 78 million in 2030 and 139 million by 2050.
As reported in last week’s column, the results of the UK study were a colossal discovery. The potential to reduce dementia through moderate exercise could and should be a sea change for those approaching middle age and beyond.
Walking approximately 10,000 steps daily reduces the risk of dementia by 50 percent. By picking up your pace to 112 steps per minute (not as difficult as it sounds), you may reduce risk by upwards of 70 percent.
Even walking a mere 3,800 steps may reduce the risk of dementia by 25 percent.
A few comments about the UK study as reported.
Although the various articles on the study often mention Alzheimer’s and Vascular Dementia, there was no mention that I could find of the other 100-plus types of dementia.
However, maintenance of blood flow to the brain, contributed to by cardiovascular exercise, is a factor that cannot be overemphasized regarding the entire spectrum of good health.
One criticism of the study suggested that the cohort population was primarily white. This leaves open the question of whether the outcomes would be consistent among other races and ethnic groups.
The largest number of criticisms questioned the absence of evidence that the number of steps directly correlated to decreased risk of dementia. This is a fair criticism and would suggest that further studies are needed to determine if the results were based upon multiple factors and not solely upon walking.
The Alzheimer’s Association picked up the flag and began clinical trials considering factors such as lifestyle, diet, race, ethnicity and social interaction. It will be some time before the results are known.
Despite the few criticisms, most doctors and dementia organizations agree that the results indicate that walking can mitigate the risk of dementia. That’s good news for those already walking. Hopefully, the huge payoff will get sedentary people off the couch and onto their feet!
Don’t lose any sleep over this.
Among my friends who have reached the eligibility age for Social Security benefits, our conversations almost always include refer- ences to our aches and pains.
Likewise, the need to pee several times during the night is seldom excluded from our discussion. That statement is invariably followed by our complaints about not getting enough sleep. These topics seem to go hand-in-hand and are endemic among the aging.
Another 25-year study links the lack of proper sleep with an increased risk of dementia. The study, published in the prestigious journal Nature in April 2021, asserts that people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who get only six hours or less of sleep have a 30 percent higher chance of developing dementia than those getting seven or more hours of sleep.
And what makes this study even more chilling is that this risk persists despite the quality of lifestyle factors. This makes sense because it is believed that sleep is absolutely crucial in ridding the brain of something called beta-amyloid and Tau proteins.
Both proteins are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and accumulate in the brain during the day. During sleep, the brain cells and conductive tissue shrink, creating space between brain cells. Getting enough sleep is necessary for the brain to cleanse itself of this debris.
So, even if we take all other precautions through exercise, diet and cerebral activity, we still increase our risk for dementia if we do not get enough quality sleep.
The bottom line
For most people, a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer’s or otherwise, is every bit as devastating as any other terminal disease, maybe worse. The cognitive functions that allow us to recognize others, maintain independence, and recall precious memories are hugely important; they define who we are.
We know that we will slowly slide into a deep and endless fog, one from which we will never return.
So, dear reader, in the absence of a cure, if there exists a way to minimize the chances of dementia, shouldn’t we make the time and effort to do so?
Perhaps we really can walk away from dementia.
“The bottom line is we know physical activity supports good cardiovascular health – and what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Find something you enjoy doing and stick to it.” Dr. Claire Sexton, Senior Director of Scientific Programs and Outreach at the Alzheimer’s Association.
In next week’s For Your Consideration, we’ll taste a real delicacy from the deep woods, one from the enchanting world of fungi.
The citation list for this and the preceding article is quite long, but I will make it available upon request.