How Can Sitting Be Bad for Your Brain?

We have known for some time that sitting for prolonged periods can adversely impact our health. This article published in 2015 discusses some of the negative issues that have been associated with sitting including:

  • Impeded cardiovascular and metabolic function
  • Depression and psychological distress (for example, a “mental funk”)
  • Spike in blood sugar levels
  • Increased risk for heart attack, type 2 diabetes, insomnia, arthritis, certain types of cancers, and premature death

As you can see, this list is comprised of serious issues, and the author of the article gives some great suggestions for reducing your time sitting as well as for combating sitting’s negative effects. It is interesting to note that being in good physical shape and exercising regularly does not exempt a person from the damage incurred by sitting for extended periods of time, so the suggestions given can be beneficial for everyone.

A study published on April 12, 2018 in PLOS One (Public Library of Science), with Prabha Siddarth as the study’s first author, sheds even more light on the deleterious effects of prolonged sitting. Siddarth and other researchers at UCLA were interested in how sedentary behavior influences brain health, specifically the regions of the brain that are known to be critical to the formation of memory. They recruited 35 individuals ages 45 to 75 – 25 women and 10 men – and asked each one of them about their level of physical activity and time spent sitting over the previous week. Each person was then given a high-resolution MRI scan, which provided a detailed look at the medial temporal lobe (MTL), a brain region involved in the formation of new memories.

The researchers found that sedentary behavior is a significant predictor of thinning of the medial temporal lobe and that physical activity, even at high levels, is not sufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods of time. Such thinning is known to often be a forerunner to cognitive decline and dementia in middle-aged and older adults.

While these finding indicate a correlation between hours spent sitting and thinner regions of the medial temporal lobe, they do not actually prove that too much sitting causes thinner brain structures. The researchers noted that they focused on the hours spent sitting, but never asked the participants if they took breaks during this time, and if so, for how long. The researchers next hope to follow a group of people for a longer duration of time to determine if sitting causes the thinning. They are also interested in what roles gender, race and weight might play in brain health related to sitting.

While the findings of this study are interesting and certainly reinforce the notion that we all need to keep moving, more research, as the authors of the study suggest, is needed. However, it might just be that in the near future, we will add Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia to the growing list of adverse effects of prolonged sitting.

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