We already know that sitting too much is bad for our bodies. Sedentary lifestyles (sitting for 10+ hours per day) lead to physical maladies such as back and joint pain, cardiovascular disease, weight gain and obesity, increased risk for cancer, slower metabolism, higher risk for diabetes, and early mortality. But new research from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) illuminates another consequence of too much sitting: our cognitive healthy.
In a preliminary study, UCLA researchers found that among adults aged 45-75 without dementia, those who spend more time sitting during the day had increased thinning of the medial temporal lobe – the area of the brain responsible for making new memories. As for many physical consequences of so-called “sitting disease,” the study found that even high levels of physical activity did not mitigate the negative effects of sitting.
This study joins a growing body of research that suggests a link between sedentary behavior and the development of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. It has been estimated that as much as 13% of global Alzheimer’s cases can be traced to excessive sitting. That means if we reduce sedentary behavior by even 25%, we could prevent more than 1 million new cases of Alzheimer’s disease each year worldwide.
However, it won’t be as simple as just increasing the amount of physical activity people get. In the UCLA study, the researchers found no correlation between medial temporal lobe thickness and physical activity. What they did find was that people who led more sedentary lifestyles had thinner medial temporal lobes.
While the study did not investigate the mechanisms by which sitting negatively impacts brain health, the researchers speculate that sitting has an adverse effect on glycemic control. Excessive sitting results in increase variability of blood sugar, causing reduced blood flow to the brain, which in turn impairs brain health over time.
Although these findings suggest a plausible explanation for rising rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers were quick to point out that their results are preliminary. More research is needed to confirm the relationship between sedentary behavior and risk for neurodegenerative disorders. The UCLA team proposes that, “Future studies should include longitudinal analyses and explore mechanisms, as well as the efficacy of decreasing sedentary behaviors to reverse this association.”
While we wait for more research to determine the mechanistic effect of sitting on brain health, there is little doubt that sitting too much has a negative impact on both our long- and short-term cognitive health. To minimize your risk for cognitive impairment both now (in the form of decreased focus and productivity) and in the future, it would be smart to incorporate more standing and movement into your daily routine. One way to do so is to invest in a standing desk converter to make your hours at work more active by switching between sitting and standing throughout the day.