We’re probably all familiar with that frustrating moment when you can’t remember someone’s name or whether or not you scheduled that appointment with your dentist. Stress, drinking, and lack of sleep are common culprits, but there’s a lesser-known reason for chronic forgetfulness, and it may be something you’re doing on a daily basis—for hours on end! Read on to find out what everyday activity robs you of focus and dulls your memory, and could eventually lead to a dementia diagnosis.
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Whether it’s logging into endless Zoom meetings, spending hours stuck in traffic on your commute, working on your laptop at the kitchen table, or curling up on the couch and bingeing the latest Netflix series, most of us do a lot of sitting every day. All that sitting may make sense for your work and lifestyle (and feel unavoidable), but it’s not the best thing you can be doing for your brain health. “Sedentary lifestyles are really hard on your brain, both in terms of emotional and cognitive health,” says Christine Celio, PhD, clinical psychologist and Calibrate emotional health expert. “Your memory and focus suffer.”
Too much time spent sitting down can be detrimental to more than just your brain function. A 2016 study showed that there is a link between sedentary behaviors and depressive symptoms. Sitting too much has also been linked to heart attack, Type 2 diabetes, and cancer, as well as an increased risk of dying due to various other medical conditions.
“There is a strong connection between sedentary lifestyles and an increased risk of dementia,” explains Ceilo. So what’s happening in your medial temporal lobe (or MTL—the part of your brain that forms new memories) when you spend a lot of time sitting down?
A 2018 study by UCLA researchers, published in the journal PLOS One, interviewed 35 people aged 45 to 75 and then gave them high-resolution MRI scans. They found that extended periods spent sitting were associated with the thinning of the MTL and areas within that region. In addition, it may be that “sedentary behavior is a more significant predictor of brain structure, specifically [medial temporal lobe] thickness,” stated the study’s authors.
The good news is that physical activity can counter the risks of sitting too much—although it’s not the only thing you need to do to counter the potential damaging effects to the brain.
“The benefits of exercise are off the charts for your brain. Regular exercise creates new dopamine receptors, and in some cases, can repair the damage done to them by excessive alcohol use,” Celio explains. She adds that exercise leads to the release of what some neuroscientists call the “don’t worry, be happy” receptors (more scientifically known as endocannabinoids). In addition to getting you up and moving instead of sitting for most of the day, these receptors can reduce your experience of stress, which can lead to memory loss.
However, reducing the time you spend sitting down—in addition to exercise—is crucial. The UCLA study notes that even intense physical activity “is not sufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods of time.” Another study shows that just reducing sedentary behavior by 25 percent decreases the prevalence of Alzheimer’s by approximately one million cases around the world.
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So how much sitting is too much? And how can you make positive, effective changes to a sedentary lifestyle?
The Mayo Clinic reports that “an analysis of 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks of dying posed by obesity and [tobacco use].” But there are simple ways to cut down on the hours you spend sitting. These include taking breaks for walking, pacing while watching television, getting some extra physical exercise by parking just a little bit farther from your destination, or getting off your train or bus ride a stop earlier.
These lifestyle changes may take some adjustment, but they can be very helpful for a host of reasons, including maintaining your cognitive health. And that’s worth remembering!
RELATED: If You Keep Saying This, It May Be a Sign of Dementia, Experts Say.