Dementia is a group of symptoms affecting mental faculties such as memory, attention, and judgment. One of the common causes of dementia is Alzheimer's disease. Can increased physical activity reduce the risk of dementia? In particular, does walking lower the risk of dementia? Here we discuss the scientific evidence related to walking and dementia.
Dementia affects memory, attention, language, and judgment, which eventually affects the quality of life.
Physical activity, such as walking, can reduce the risk of dementia.
Walking at a moderate pace for 30 minutes five days a week can be beneficial.
Talk to a doctor before adopting walking or any other more vigorous physical activity.
Physical activity & dementia
Dementia can be caused due to various neurodegenerative pathologies such as Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia, vascular dementia, and frontotemporal dementia. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. As the disease progresses, dementia affects a person's lifestyle and their family. Is there an effective way to reduce the risk of dementia?
Physical activity such as walking is considered beneficial for brain health. Walking engages muscles and requires interaction between our senses and the brain. Walking is defined based on the speed of moving by 2–4 miles per hour. While jogging is moving 4–6 miles per hour and running — 6+ miles per hour. Walking does not require any equipment, special clothing, or expensive memberships. People can walk in parks, shopping malls, or safe road pavements (footpaths).
The link between walking and improved cognition has been scientifically tested. In a research study, healthy older adults walked for 60 minutes three times a week for six months. The results showed improved attention, memory, and executive function — the ability to choose correctly. Their physical fitness, including muscle strength and balance, also improved. This study gives us insight into maintaining the physical and mental health of older adults.
How much walking is needed to reduce the risk of dementia?
The popular notion of 10,000 steps per day has scientific merit. Research studies conducted in the UK and the U.S. provide much-needed scientific evidence. A large study conducted in the UK examined data from over 78,000 participants. These middle-aged adults used a wrist device (accelerometer) to record their daily steps for an average of 6.9 years. The results showed that the higher the number of steps lowered the risk of dementia. For example, a minimal "dose" of 3800 steps was necessary to reduce the risk; however, beyond 9800 steps, no further benefit was observed.
The researchers also observed how people walked. Steps were considered incidental when less than 40 steps per minute, whereas 40 steps per minute or more were considered purposeful walking. Researchers noted that when steps were taken with higher intensity, their association with the reduced risk of dementia was stronger. As a result, findings showed that walking approximately 10,000 steps per day at a purposeful pace might help keep dementia at bay.
Researchers also noted that walking benefits other diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. The recommended "dosage" for patients with heart and cancer diseases ranges from 8000–12,000 steps. The findings also highlighted some interesting points, including the fact that men need to walk more than women to achieve similar results, and older adults need to walk more than their younger counterparts. Given these nuances, consulting with a physician before committing to walking 10,000 steps per day is essential. A healthcare provider can recommend the proper number of daily steps to be most beneficial.
Walking safety tips
The following are some safety tips to implement when walking.
- Many workplaces have lunch-hour walking programs. Participating in lunch-hour walks helps people reach their daily step goal.
- Most people with dementia can walk safely on their own. However, if a loved one with dementia has a history of falls, then a companion or assistive devices might be necessary.
- A loved one with dementia may get tired (or hungry or thirsty) walking long distances. For example, being familiar with rest spots, such as a bench in a garden, is beneficial.
- Wayfinding, or the ability to get back home, is a complex cognitive skill. A loved one with dementia may need some assistance with wayfinding as the disease progresses.
- Persons with advanced stages of dementia may choose to walk in their own yards. However, they may even get lost in their own yard and have difficulty getting back into their home. Ensure that help is available in such situations.
- Medical alert bracelet. A global positioning system (GPS) enabled medical alert bracelet or radio frequency identification (RFID) buttons may become necessary if your loved one with dementia enjoys walks but is at risk of getting lost.
Walking is a low-cost, easy, and effective exercise for persons with or without dementia. Typically, community authorities, such as the city council, can provide information regarding walking parks/paths. Public facilities such as shopping malls and airports also have resources that give information about walking paths. Additionally, national organizations such as America Walks or Every Body Walk also provide more information about walking.
An active lifestyle helps reduce the risk of several metabolic diseases. To reduce the risk of dementia, healthy adults should walk up to 10,000 steps per day. If you are diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or dementia, discuss with your doctor and family about safely including walking exercises in your daily routine.
- Healthcare. The Beneficial Effects of Cognitive Walking Program on Improving Cognitive Function and Physical Fitness in Older Adults.
- JAMA Neurology. Association of Daily Step Count and Intensity with Incident Dementia in 78,430 Adults Living in the UK.
- JAMA. Association of Daily Step Count and Step Intensity with Mortality Among US Adults.
- Dementia Australia. Safer walking for people with dementia – approaches and technologies.