Doing This in the Bathroom Can Reduce Your Dementia Risk, Study Finds
Researchers found that this one thing could slash your risk in half.
As you age, your dementia risk increases rapidly. In fact, according to the Alzheimer's Association, your risk of Alzheimer's doubles every five years after the age of 65. However, there are some things you can do to lower your risk of developing cognitive impairment—including one you may be able to do in your very own bathroom. Experts say that by doing this one thing roughly three times per week, you can slash your odds of dementia in half over a 20 year period. Read on to find out which habit may stave off dementia, and how to do it safely.
Regularly taking a sauna may reduce your risk of dementia.
According to a 2020 study published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, "repeated heat exposure like sauna bathing" seems to be beneficial in preventing dementia development. The cohort study, which was conducted in Finland, utilized surveys and existing medical records from 13,994 middle-aged men and women who had not previously been diagnosed with dementia.
When the team compared the health data from those who took a sauna between nine and 12 times per month with that of those who did so four or fewer times per month, they found that those who regularly took a sauna had lower dementia risk. "During the first 20 years of follow-up, the dementia risk of those reporting 9–12 sauna baths per month (i.e., approximately three per week) was less than a half of the risk of those who had sauna baths only 0–4 times per month," the team wrote. "The reduction in the dementia risk was attenuated during the follow-up, but the decrease of the risk was still evident after nearly 40 years. Accordingly, a sauna bathing frequency of three times per week may be associated with a reduced risk of dementia," they added, noting that further research is required to verify the benefits.
The particular conditions of the sauna may have cognitive benefits.
Because sauna bathing is considered commonplace in Finland, nearly all of the study participants practiced the habit, and did so on average 6.03 times per month. These sessions typically lasted under 15 minutes at a temperature below 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), the researchers wrote.
They found that "a straight stay in heat for five to 14 minutes per heat session vs. less than 5 minutes was suggestively related to a reduced risk [of dementia]. The most favorable sauna temperature for dementia protection was 80–99 degrees Celsius [176-210 degrees Fahrenheit]," they wrote.
Here's how it works, according to researchers.
Wondering why a sauna would lower your dementia risk? The Finnish team said that while more research is needed on the matter, there are several possible answers related to "physiological, metabolic, and cellular changes which may affect brain function."
In particular, they say that a sudden elevation in temperature causes heat shock, which leads to the creation of something called "heat shock proteins." The researchers explained that these "are important regulators in normal cell functions and have an essential role in guarding and controlling protein formation. Because disturbances of protein construction and folding are central to the development of neurological diseases, heat shock proteins may be important in maintaining protein homeostasis in the brain."
Additionally, saunas may improve vascular and cardiovascular function, which increases cerebral blood flow and lowers inflammation. "It is possible that some of the effects of sauna in the brain are conveyed via reduced inflammation," the team wrote.
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However, there are also some serious risks to sauna bathing.
Though the researchers found a lower risk of dementia in those who took a sauna on average three times per week, they also observed that those who did so in extremely hot temperatures were at significantly elevated risk of the brain disease. "Sauna heat which is too high may not be good for the brain. The dementia risk of those bathing in sauna temperatures higher than 100 degrees Celsius [212 degrees Fahrenheit] doubled compared to those bathing at temperatures lower than 80 degrees Celsius [176 degrees Fahrenheit] during the first twenty years of follow-up," the team warned.
However, most saunas in the U.S.—like the one you may have at your gym, or, if you're lucky, in your home—are heated to temperatures between 150 and 195 degrees Fahrenheit. They typically include a thermometer and temperature controls. Be sure to check the sauna's settings before entering, and limit your time inside to no more than 15 minutes.