Scientists discover surprising link between sitting and dementia

Individuals aged over 60 who engage in sedentary behaviors, such as sitting for more than 10 hours a day, face a higher risk of dementia

[Jan. 17, 2024: JJ Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

Research has unveiled a new avenue of cell death in Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) has shed new light on the relationship between sedentary behavior and the risk of developing dementia.

The research, which utilized data from the UK Biobank and accelerometer data from study participants, indicates that individuals aged over 60 who engage in prolonged sedentary behaviors, such as sitting for more than 10 hours a day, face a significantly higher risk of dementia compared to their more active counterparts.

This groundbreaking study, led by Professor David Raichlen of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and Professor Gene Alexander of the University of Arizona's McKnight Brain Institute, unveils the intricate connection between a sedentary lifestyle and the onset of dementia.

Defining Sedentary Behavior

Sedentary behavior, as defined by the authors, encompasses any waking activity characterized by "a low energy expenditure while in a sitting or reclining posture." This broad definition encompasses activities such as watching television, reading, or sitting at a desk for extended periods.

According to Professor Raichlen, "The link between sedentary behavior was nonlinear, so that at lower amounts of sitting time, there was no significant increase in risk." However, the risk of dementia begins to rise significantly after approximately 10 hours of sedentary behavior per day, with a notable 8 percent increase in risk at the 10-hour mark, and a striking 63 percent increase at 12 hours.

While common advice often suggests breaking up long periods of sitting with short, frequent breaks, the study's findings challenge this notion. Professor Raichlen clarified, "We wanted to see if those types of patterns are associated with dementia risk. We found that once you take into account the total time spent sedentary, the length of individual sedentary periods didn't really matter."

This suggests that even if sedentary time is interspersed with brief periods of physical activity, the total cumulative sitting time is the key factor influencing dementia risk.

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Despite these compelling findings, the exact mechanisms underlying the link between sedentary lifestyles and dementia risk remain largely enigmatic. The authors of the study acknowledge that further research is necessary to fully comprehend the intricacies of this association.

Professor Raichlen noted, "Our study was not focused on mechanisms but it is possible that reductions in cerebral blood flow or links between sedentary behavior and cardiometabolic disease factors may play a role in increased risk for dementia. Future work will focus on identifying these mechanisms."

Additionally, the study highlights the importance of investigating the relationship between telomere length and dementia. Telomeres, protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, have been implicated in various aspects of aging and age-related diseases. In this context, the authors emphasize the need for further research into telomere length in different cell types and how changes in telomere length may affect dementia risk.

Data derived from: Raichlen D, et al. JAMA. 2023;doi:10.1001/jama.2023.15231. (CREDIT: Healio)

 This opens a promising avenue for future studies seeking to unravel the complexities of dementia development.

While the findings of this study provide valuable insights into the association between sedentary behavior and dementia, it is important to acknowledge certain limitations. The study measured leukocyte telomere length (LTL) only once at baseline in nearly 470,000 participants. As a result, the researchers were unable to ascertain whether changes in LTL impact the likelihood of dementia development.

Contributions of physical inactivity and sedentary behavior to metabolic and endocrine diseases. (CREDIT: Cell Press)

Additionally, dementia diagnoses were obtained solely from electronic health records, potentially leading to the omission of some undiagnosed or less severe cases. Finally, the observational nature of the study necessitates caution when drawing conclusions about causality.

While the exact mechanisms behind this association remain elusive, further research in the field promises to unveil the intricate biological processes at play. In the quest to understand and mitigate the devastating impact of dementia, these findings represent a crucial step forward, offering hope for future interventions and preventive strategies.

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.