“Cognitive decline in late adulthood is becoming the №1 public health problem we face as a country, particularly as the baby boomers age.”
That’s the view of Dr. Denise Park, the Director of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas (USA).
OUR HABITS CAN HAVE PROFOUND EFFECTS on our cognitive functions. There are many contributants to our brain health, but today I want to focus on a relatively simple way you can lower your chances of suffering from cognitive decline.
First, before we talk about too much sitting, let’s quickly list some brain hacks that may lower your risk of suffering from a cognitive decline.
- Physical activity may provide some protection for many of us. Dr. Laura Baker, a neuropsychologist at the University of Washington (in my beloved Seattle), discovered that older adults with mild cognitive impairment demonstrated improvements on tests of executive function after six months of aerobic exercise (for four days weekly).
- Stress is associated with an increase in beta-amyloid protein, a component thought by many (but not all) to be a causal agent for Alzheimer’s dementia, at least in mice brains.
- Mental stimulation. A 2006 meta-analysis showed fewer years of education associated [emphasis added] with a greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Short sleep is associated with brain dysfunction. I have written about the link here:
Short Sleep and DementiaSleep disturbance is associated with a higher risk of dementia.medium.comUse Sleep and Exercise to Drop Your Dementia RiskToo little (or too much) sleep may increase your dementia risk. Optimizing sleep and getting some exercise may reduce…drmichaelhunter.medium.com.
First, full disclosure: I am unaware of any high-level evidence pointing to a clear cause-and-effect relationship between lifestyle interventions and improvements in cognitive impairment risk.
The US National Institutes of Health agrees, with an expert panel concluding that there is not enough evidence to support any particular modifiable factor as reducing dementia risk.
Still, many habits are associated with poorer brain health, and today I want to look specifically at the effects of sitting too much.
Sitting and the brain
“Americans Sit More Than Anytime In History And It’s Killing Us.”
That’s the headline I recently stumbled across. Do you sit too much? In the United States, the average American adult sits more than at any other time in history.
As a radiation oncologist, I have a relatively sedentary job. Do you? According to the American Heart Association, these types of jobs have increased 83 percent since 1950.
We sit. A lot.
Did you know that physically active jobs comprise less than 20 percent of work in the USA? This low number is down from approximately half of jobs in 1960.
And, Johns Hopkins researchers contend that “physically active jobs now make up less than 20% of the U.S. workforce, down from roughly half of jobs in 1960.” The typical office worker sits a remarkable 15 hours daily. And then we sit on our commute home.
And there is this: Too much sitting can offset the health benefits of working out.
All of this sitting can do a job on our brains. A 2018 PLOS One study reports that sitting too much is associated with changes in a brain region central to memory.
University of California, Los Angeles (USA) researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to peer into the brain’s medial temporal lobe (MTL), a zone that creates new memories. The research subjects ranged in age from 45 to 75 years.
They compared the scans with the average number of hours an individual sat each day. Those who sat for the most prolonged time had thinner MTL regions. Unfortunately, such brain changes can be precursors of cognitive decline and dementia.
Sitting and the brain — An action plan
I recommend moving after 30 minutes of sitting to all of my able patients. Many of us have reminders on our wrists: My FitBit device buzzes periodically to remind me to get up and move.
I recall a New York Times piece that suggested we exercise for three minutes every half hour to counter the harmful effects of sitting too long. Walk around the office or home. Climb stairs. Stretch. Just move. Even as few as 15 steps during mini-breaks can improve our blood sugar control.