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Walking 10,000 steps a day can cut the risk of dementia in half, and for those who can’t walk so far, just 4,000 daily steps can reduce dementia risk by a quarter, a new study finds.
The analysis of data from more than 78,000 adults also revealed that half an hour of walking at a brisk pace was associate with a 62% decline in the risk of dementia, according to the report published in JAMA Neurology.
“Probably the biggest takeaway is that 10,000 steps may be the optimal number of steps to reduce the risk of dementia, cutting it by 50%,” said the study’s first author, Borja del Pozo Cruz, an adjunct associate professor at Southern Denmark University and a senior researcher in health at the University of Cadiz in Cadiz, Spain. “Faster steps provide superior results.”
Another analysis of the same data, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that participants who walked briskly, about 80 to 100 steps a minute, even for short periods had a 30% lower risk of developing dementia compared to people who walked roughly the same amount at a slower pace. They also had reduced risk of developing cancer and cardiovascular disease. Essentially, the data showed that walking briskly for even just few thousand steps can improve health outcomes.
“Walking is associated with better vascular profiles, which is probably the clearest pathway through which steps may benefit dementia,” Pozo Cruz said in an email. Thus, it’s “likely that vascular dementia is the most preventable through physical activity.”
Vascular dementia is dementia "caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to the brain," according to Mayo Clinic. It's the second most common type of dementia, after Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Society.
While 10,000 steps cut the risk of dementia by half, the study showed that a smaller amount of steps, around 4,000, could cut the risk by a quarter, and “4,000 steps per day is less intimidating than 10,000 for many, so it may be a powerful message to motivate the most inactive and less fit individuals,” Pozo Cruz said.
To take a look at the impact of walking on dementia, Pozo Cruz and his colleagues turned to data from the U.K. Biobank, which, since 2006, has been collecting biological and medical data on half a million people who agreed to participate in the databank when they were between 40 and 69.
The researchers focused on data from February 2013 to December 2015. Biobank participants were invited to take part in the new study, for which they were required to wear an accelerometer on their wrists to document their activity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Pozo Cruz and his colleagues focused their analysis on 78,430 participants aged 40 to 79 who had at least three days’ worth of accelerometer data and who were free of cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia at the outset. In October of 2021, the researchers checked back in on the participants through medical and death registry records.
By 2021, with a median of 6.9 years of follow-up, Pozo Cruz and his colleagues determined that 866 of the participants had developed dementia. The researchers found that the number of steps people took per day was associated with how likely they were to develop dementia, with 9,826 steps per day associated with a 51% decrease in the risk of dementia.
A step count of 3,826 was associated with a 25% decrease in the risk of dementia, and when people moved with a “purposeful” stride, the biggest decrease, 57%, was associated with 6,315 steps per day. A striking finding was the big decrease in risk associated with walking at a pace of 112 steps per minute for 30 minutes, which was linked with a 68% decrease in risk.
Pozo Cruz suspects that when there are more years of follow-up, the benefits associated with putting in 10,000 steps may turn out to be even greater than what the study already found because more of the Biobank participants will have hit the age when dementia is more common.
In recent years, there has been “an important trend to focus on modifiable risk factors for dementia that we can adjust in our own lives that may be important for living long and well,” said Emily Rogalski, Ph.D., associate director of the Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
“We’ve also seen how exercise interventions and lifestyle changes can modify the risk for dementia,” said Rogalski, who was not involved in the new study. “I think this research offers an important opportunity to explore how the number of steps and their intensity may play a role in the risk for dementia and in the health of our brains.”
The new study drills further down to look at the optimal number of steps and the intensity of those steps, Rogalski said. It’s unlikely that walking will turn out to be the only exercise that impacts the risk of dementia, she added.
“With interventions like exercise and cognitive stimulation, it’s unlikely that there will be a one size fits all strategy,” Rogalski said. What’s important on an individual level is melding the science with what fits for an individual, she added.