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Taking 4,000 Steps a Day Can Reduce Dementia Risk—But More Walking Is Even Better

If you need a reason to get up and move more, here it is: A newly published study finds that walking 10,000 steps per day helps lower your risk of developing dementia. In fact, even 4,000 steps a day is enough to decrease dementia risk by one-quarter, according to the study published in JAMA Neurology.

“There is evidence that physical activity can enhance dementia prevention amongst the general population. Yet, people are not sufficiently active,” Borja del Pozo Cruz, PhD, an associate professor in population health at the University of Southern Denmark and the lead author of the study, told Health. “We thought that by providing specific stepping recommendations, people would pay more attention to physical activity, as steps and walking are something everyone understands and require very little resources.”

This is an important breakthrough at a time when dementia numbers are rising rapidly—55 million people worldwide live with dementia and the World Health Organization reports there are nearly 10 million new cases each year. What’s more, a 2022 study published in The Lancet forecasts the number of dementia cases in people over 40 will triple by 2050.

Here’s a closer look at the study findings and how to incorporate its recommendations into your routine.

Spearheaded by researchers from the University of Sydney, Australia and University of Southern Denmark, the new study involved following 78,430 adults between the ages of 40 to 79.

Study participants were required to use a wrist-worn accelerometer tracker on their dominant wrist for a week in order to record walking progress. Researchers then analyzed the participant’s health outcomes over the next seven years, including monitoring for any dementia diagnoses.

The study’s final data analysis excluded participants who had a previous history of heart disease, cancer, or dementia at the study outset—all participants were disease-free in the first two years of the study.

However, as of October 2021, 866 participants, or 1.1%, had subsequently developed dementia, researchers found. Additionally, the data showed there was an association between more daily steps and lower dementia risk.

The Exact Number of Steps Matters

Researchers found that people who walked an average of 9,826 steps a day appeared to be the least likely to develop dementia. Specifically, walking nearly 9,800 steps was needed to reduce dementia risk by 50%.

“The greatest reductions in dementia risk was achieved at [almost] 10,000 steps per day. Although popular, this target has never before [been] studied under rigorous scientific designs,” said Dr. del Pozo Cruz.

It’s also worth noting that walking more than this amount did not seem to confer any further dementia-related health benefits.

The least amount of walking where researchers still observed an effect on dementia risk was 3,826 steps. Walking nearly 3,800 steps, researchers found, was linked to a 25% lower incidence of dementia. This finding is also in line with a 2020 study that found that taking at least 4,000 steps a day was enough to lower a person’s mortality risk.

The key takeaway here? Walking 10,000 steps a day is a popular goal, but the study suggests you can already start seeing health benefits by walking 4,000 steps daily.

Another important finding—both the number of steps people take each day and the speed of those steps are important to reducing dementia risk.

Alternating the intensity of your exercise improves your cardiovascular input, Reina Benabou, MD, PhD, a neurologist and neuroscientist that serves as the vice president and head of medical affairs in Janssen Neuroscience, told Health. And if you help your cardiovascular health, you’re improving the blood flow and oxygen heading to your brain, allowing it to function at a more optimal state.

Researchers said they observed a dose effect in which people who went on purposeful walks—defined as over 40 steps per minute—reduced their dementia risks more than people who went on leisurely walks. A pace of 112 steps per minute for 30 minutes had lower rates of dementia.

Is It Ever Too Late To Prevent Risk of Dementia?

Experts note that as long as you’re moving, you’re making a difference in improving your health. “From the very first step, people will do better! And if you are active [or] fitter, aim for that 10k steps target,” advises Dr. del Pozo Cruz.

“It’s never too late. Even 1,000 steps is better than 50,” said Dr. Benabou, who warned that one of the main issues plaguing health problems is people adopting a sedentary lifestyle. “Sitting down is the new smoking. We have to move, but we have to make sure that we do exercise consciously,” said Dr. Benabou.

Memory loss is not an inevitable cause of aging, and other modifiable risk factors can also influence brain health and memory loss. “Dementia has things we can actively change. Mental health, brain health, and overall health are all extremely intertwined,” said Dr. Benabou.

In other words, it’s fine if you walk 10,000 steps, but if you eat terribly and are constantly stressed, then it won’t make much of a difference in the long run. Along with regular exercise, she reminds people to do the following:

  • Get the recommended hours of sleep every night
  • Eat a nutritious diet
  • Take care of your mental health

“We cannot really change our age or our genetic heritage,” says Dr. Benabou. “But we can make lifestyle changes that reduce or even delay the risk of developing cognitive decline.”

“We cannot really change our age or our genetic heritage,” says Dr. Benabou. “But we can make lifestyle changes that reduce or even delay the risk of developing cognitive decline.”

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