How much should you walk each day to reduce risk?

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How many steps per day help offset the risk of dementia? Researchers may now have the answer. Image credit: Christopher Fanelli/EyeEm/Getty Images.
  • Dementia affects more than 55 million people worldwide and is the seventh leading cause of death worldwide.
  • With the increase in the proportion of elderly people in the population, the number of cases of dementia is also on the rise.
  • There is growing evidence that regular exercise not only benefits overall health, but is also one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of developing dementia.
  • Good news for those who struggle to fit exercise into their daily routine, a new study has shown that walking around 4,000 steps a day can reduce the risk of dementia by 25%.
  • Increasing their daily step count to just under 10,000 could halve the risk of developing dementia.

As the world’s population ages, cases of dementia are also on the rise around the world. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that some 55 million people currently live with dementia, and this number is expected to reach 139 million by 2050.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, affects approximately 5.8 million people in the United States only.

According to the Alzheimer Society, the main risk factors for dementia are aging and genetics. Dementia is more common in people over the age of 75, and having a close relative with dementia can increase a person’s risk to develop the disorder.

Other risk factors that we cannot control include gender – women are more at risk than men – and ethnicity. However, lifestyle changes, such as increasing physical exercise, controlling blood pressure and stimulating the brain, can reduce a person’s risk of dementia, even for those with one or several risk factors.

Dr. Anton Porsteinsson, professor and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Care, Research and Education (AD-CARE) program at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said Medical News Today:

“A broad and healthy approach that considers lifestyle, diet, exercise, cognitive stimulation, socialization and sleep makes all the difference. Many of them [can be effective] even though it started later in life.

And working out doesn’t have to mean breaking a sweat at the gym or playing a new sport.

According to a study recently published in JAMA Neurologysimply increasing the number of steps a person takes each day can reduce their risk of dementia by up to 50%.

The study used data from the UK Biobank. The 78,430 participants, of whom 44.7% were men and 55.3% women, had an average age of 61.1 years. All participants were free of cardiovascular disease and dementia when they entered the study. The researchers followed up the participants after a median of 6.9 years (6.4 to 7.5 years).

For the study, participants were required to wear an accelerometer on their dominant wrist 24/7 to measure physical activity. The researchers then used an algorithm to calculate the number of steps from the data collected by the accelerometer.

The researchers controlled for variables such as age, sex, race, socioeconomic status, smoking status, general health and diet when analyzing the data.

At follow-up, 866 participants, or 1.1%, had developed dementia.

While welcoming the study results, Dr. Claire Sexton, senior director of science programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association, who was not involved in the study, said DTM:

“There are some important caveats from this study. The sampled population was predominantly white and therefore cannot be generalized to other racial/ethnic groups. This study also does not demonstrate definitive causality between the number of steps and the risk of dementia; therefore, more research is needed.

“The Alzheimer’s Association is conducting a clinical trial combining exercise with other lifestyle factors, such as diet and social/cognitive engagement, to determine whether these combined factors reduce the risk of cognitive decline,” she added.

Dr Porsteinsson agreed: “There are definite limitations to observational cohort studies, but also advantages. They generate hypotheses, that is, they direct us to what we might want to investigate further in a randomized controlled study. The good news here is that there is a body of evidence to suggest that exercise is beneficial in warding off dementia.

“This is an important study that can help inform public health guidelines on how much physical activity is needed to achieve health benefits,” Dr. Sexton said.

“These results are not surprising given the strong data we have linking physical activity and better cognition. One of the strengths of this paper is that it uses an objective and widely understood measure of step count rather than self-reported data,” she noted.

The researchers found that step count and step intensity were associated with a reduced risk of dementia. For the greatest benefit – a 50% reduction in dementia risk – participants were required to walk around 9,800 steps per day. Above this number, no other benefits were observed.

However, the good news for those who can’t take that many steps is that just 3,826 steps a day reduces the risk of dementia by 25%.

Dr. Porsteinsson agreed that any exercise will help reduce risk. “[It’s] never too late to start and even a relatively small effort is beneficial and can then be added as endurance improves,” he told us.

Deliberate steps, defined as more than 40 steps per minute, such as during a walk, increased the association with a reduced risk of dementia.

“Here we see a ‘dose’ effect, ie more intense and focused walking is more beneficial than leisurely walking. Also, people often walk with others (walking and talking) so you can incorporate a social component and an interactive component as well.

– Dr. Anton Porsteinsson

This study reinforces the evidence that staying active as you age can maintain physical and mental health and improve longevity.

Another large-scale study of nearly 650,000 veterans found that being physically fit reduced the risk of dementia by up to 33%. In this study, even a small amount of exercise was found to help reduce the risk of dementia.

An Alzheimer Society analysis of 11 studies found that exercising regularly, not smoking, moderating alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy body weight, eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly had the most great impact on the risk of dementia. For Alzheimer’s disease, regular exercise reduces the risk by up to 45%.

“At the end of the day, we know that physical activity promotes good cardiovascular health — and what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. Find something you enjoy doing and stick with it.

– Dr. Claire Sexton

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