For those looking to prevent dementia, this activity may be the key

For those looking to prevent dementia, this activity may be the key

Frequent sauna use may reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by up to two-thirds, according to a recent study from researchers in Finland.

Men who used a sauna four to seven times a week were 66 percent less likely to be diagnosed with dementia compared to those who went to the sauna only once a week. The findings are based on data compiled over 20 years from more than 2,300 middle-aged men living in the eastern part of Finland, where saunas are a significant part of the culture.

The study participants were divided into three groups: those who used the sauna once a week, those who went sauna bathing two to three times a week, and those who used the sauna four to seven times a week.

Analysis shows that the more often the participants went sauna bathing, the lower their risk of dementia. Among those who used the sauna four to seven times a week, the risk of any form of dementia was 66 percent lower, and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease 65 percent lower than among those who went just once a week.

“This points in a very interesting direction for those actively looking to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Srinivas Reddy, a cardiologist on staff at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. “Studies have shown that saunas may improve circulation and reduce blood pressure, both of which cut the risk of getting dementia.”

Previous examination of the participants in this study found that men who used a dry-heat sauna four to seven times a week had significantly lower death rates from cardiovascular disease and stroke than those who only used the sauna once a week.

Dr. Reddy says that a heart-mind connection has be validated by a number of previous studies.

“Cardiovascular health can certainly affect the brain in a number of ways,” he says. “We know that improved blood flow to the brain leads to better overall mental function in areas such as planning, organizing, and attention.”

Heat, in any form, is known to dilate, or widen, the arteries of the body, says Dr. Reddy. Because this dilation can stress your heart, he adds, people need to talk with their physician before starting any sort of regular sauna usage.

In addition to the purely biological causes and effects, says Dr. Reddy, sauna bathing may also help present and future mental health because of the relaxation and sense of well-being that it may provide.

“Using a sauna tends to be a very stress relieving experience with the heat helping to relax you,” he says. “And there is a lot of evidence that chronic stress contributes to the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

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13 Comments

  1. What if a person doesn’t have access to sauna? Will hot showers provide the same benefits?

  2. Sounds very interesting. But what does it do for women? Would they also benefit from the Sauna for Dementia and Alzheimers ?

  3. Lily,

    According to Dr. Reddy, hot showers do have some temporary health benefits (relaxing tense muscles, decongestant, anti-stress hormone release). But, you’d have to bring the water up to a very dangerous temperature (140 degree water will burn in about 6 secs) to get anywhere near sauna level (at least 150 degrees, and usually in the 175-190 range). Not sure if they will be doing follow ups at lower temps, but we’ll keep our eyes open.

  4. Zoe,

    Dr. Reddy says that more investigation needs to be done to pin down an exact answer. But, chances are, that the same mechanisms at play for men also apply to women. The positive effects on the cardiovascular system or brain don’t seem to be related to any gender-specific chemistry or physiology. He does stress that everyone, particularly pregnant women, check with their physician before starting any sort of regular sauna regimen.

  5. I have mci
    Is there any benefit?
    What would difference be between sauna vs steam room ?

  6. Linda,

    The study didn’t look at the effects on those already dealing with symptoms. Judging by these promising results, though, further study on “treatment” in addition to this “prevention” study likely will happen. Based on the fact that numerous studies have tied mci to chronic stress, the de-stressing effects of saunas might well have some positives, at minimum. Again, Dr. Reddy strongly recommends check with your doc first before you hit the sauna or steam room.

    And, in relation to steam roomshaving sauna-like effects, the lead author of the study referenced in the story had this to say (in a follow up interview with NY Daily News), ““Yes. It might, but our study cannot confirm it. They may have some similarities. More studies are needed.”

  7. Not a very practical solution, especially for men who are not that mobile. Dragging my brother to a Sauna at frequent intervals is impossible and also unlikely on an occasional schedule. How about coming up with something that works in the home.

  8. Sherwin,

    I did some quick looking and there are some portable, very small form-factor, personal saunas available for what seem to be very economical prices. Most top out at about 150 degrees, but that does qualify as a “sauna”. I have no experience with these and can’t recommend any, but these might be a practical option for you and your family. Good luck

  9. Rev. N. Diaz-Cabello December 30, 2016 at 10:11 am · Reply

    Thank you for the article.
    Wondering, how the researchers selected the participants (age range- family history- genetic predisposition)?

  10. A person that goes to a sauna 4-7 times per week sounds like a very active individual. Couldn’t an active lifestyle be a contributing factor?

  11. Rev. Diaz-Cabello,

    Here is the criteria listed in the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (the original study setup, on which literally hundreds of other research topics have been based): “The study population is a random sample of men living in the Kuopio city and neighbouring rural communities, stratified and balanced into four strata: 42, 48, 54, or 60 years at the baseline examination.”

    Note that women were added to the study about 10 years in, but much of that data hasn’t been analyzed and/or presented yet.

  12. Diane,

    Good point. Saunas are a very big deal in Finnish culture, so there is easy access to them for many people. But, even small differences in physical ability may get folks to/into a sauna more frequently.

    It seems that activity + the sauna might be a best bet, “Physical exercise and sauna bathing is a perfect combination [of] exercise and relaxation,” said study co-author Jari Laukkanen, MD, PhD, a cardiologist and faculty member at the University of Eastern Finland, Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition. “Sauna bathing will [provide] an additional, very positive tool in the primary prevention of cardiovascular diseases and dementia.”

  13. I really admire Dr. Reddy’s research study on dry saunas. I have not noticed in his studies the duration of a saunas but only frquency as how often a weekly basis.
    I would appreciate this specific answer asap.

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About the Author

Nate Llewellyn
Nate Llewellyn

Nate Llewellyn, health enews contributor, is the director of public affairs and marketing at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, Ill. Nate began his career as a journalist and builds daily on his nearly 20 years of writing experience. He spends most of his free time following his wife to their two sons’ various activities.

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