Sitting All Day? Your Risk of Dementia Could Be on the Rise

Illustration of a brain sitting on a beach chair

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Research shows a worrying link between couch time and brain health.

Doctors have long warned that sitting for extended periods can cause all kinds of health concerns, including heart disease and diabetes. But did you know that being too much of a couch potato can also lead to significant mental deterioration? 

According to new research published earlier this month in The Journal of the American Medical Association, people who stay seated for longer periods at work or home are more likely to develop dementia than those who sit less. What’s worse is exercise might not even be enough to fix the damage. Those who regularly work out still face a higher risk for cognitive decline if they remain in one spot for most of the day.

“Sitting in the office all day, then in front of the TV and in the car and all the other ways we find to sit, it adds up,” said the study’s lead author David Raichlen. 

These findings underscore just how extensive the effects of sitting can be on our overall health — here’s a closer look at what researchers found in their study. 

How does sitting for too long affect your brain health?

Researchers found that men and women aged 60 or older who sat for at least 10 hours a day had a higher risk of developing dementia within the next seven years. (By comparison, people who were sedentary for 9.5 hours a day didn’t have any increased risk.) The dangers only went up from there: Older people who were chair-bound for 12 hours had a 63 percent greater chance of developing the debilitating brain disorder that affects more than 55 million people worldwide.

So how did researchers come across these findings? Unlike previous studies, which have mostly relied on people’s memory of how often they sat, in this case the participants wore an activity tracker for a week. With the help of artificial intelligence, researchers were then able to track every minute of movement — or lack thereof. 

But does all that sitting directly affect your brain health, or is the connection more of a coincidence? That remains unclear. Even researchers in the most recent study acknowledge that “future research is needed to determine whether the association between sedentary behavior and risk of dementia is causal.”

But wait, doesn’t exercise help?

Unfortunately, you may not be able to exercise your way out of this one. 

People who got their morning workout in but then planted themselves in a chair or sofa for 10 hours or more were just as prone to dementia as those who didn’t exercise much, if at all. This was also true for people who took periodic breaks throughout the day. If they went on a walk or moved around but still sat for 10 hours, their risk was just the same as anyone else. 

Believe it or not, prolonged periods of sitting can even undermine exercise. According to separate research published last year, people who were active for at least 30 minutes per day but then sat almost nonstop ended up erasing some of those health benefits. 

Ultimately, this research indicates that what matters is how many total hours you spent in front of your computer or on your couch on a daily basis.

How can you reduce your dementia risk from sitting?

Based on this data, it seems the best way to decrease your chances of getting dementia is to find ways to sit less often — which we totally get is probably easier said than done. 

The key is to look for opportunities during the day to move around. That can be as easy as strolling around your home while you’re on the phone or walking to the restaurant to pick up your lunch instead of ordering in. 

It might also be helpful to keep track of how many hours you’re spending sitting down, just like you would when it comes to tracking your steps. As long as you sit for less than 10 hours per day, you should be in the clear, so try to spend a little less time on Zoom and a little more time on the move.