What if I told you that you have over 25,000 opportunities each and every day to protect your brain and reduce the risk of developing dementia? Sounds implausible, right?
Well, a recent study has suggested just that. And if you are struggling to imagine what quotidian activity I am referring to, don’t hold your breath as it is in fact this very simple act.
In the study, a group of healthy volunteers were asked to deliberately control their breathing – specifically, breathing in and then out for a count of five. They were asked to do this for up to 40 minutes a day for only four weeks.
They then had their blood analysed for amyloid, the protein which, when misfolded in the brain, is associated with Alzheimer’s Disease.
Amazingly, the blood levels were far lower than in those who did not undertake the breathing exercises.
We all have control over our breath, and being more mindful and deliberate in our practice of breathing may go a long way to protecting our brains.
So how does it all work?
One prime candidate for the link between breathing and the brain is the autonomic nervous system.
You may have heard of this. It is the network of nerves that underpins our “fight or flight” response (when one arm of the system – the sympathetic arm – is activated) and “rest and digest” phase (when the opposing parasympathetic arm is dominant).
Now, for optimal health, these opposing arms need to be in balance. You need to be able to react to danger by engaging the sympathetic system, but if this stimulation lasts too long there are a myriad of potential negative health effects including health conditions that arise from chronic inflammation.
There is accumulating research that one of these conditions is dementia. Overstimulation of the sympathetic system seems to both mobilise the release of amyloid and reduce its clearance from the brain – not a good thing if you’re trying to prevent Alzheimer’s Disease.
By breathing in the manner examined in the study, you are stimulating your parasympathetic system. In fact, it is probably the increased length of the exhalation that is doing this, as inhaling tends to be associated with sympathetic activation. So more controlled breathing, with a focus on the exhalation, equals less amyloid which may be associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Although this does not prove that breathing the right way can prevent dementia (that’s not what they were studying), it is an intriguing finding.
In medicine, we tend to make decisions by weighing up the benefits of doing something against the harm doing that thing might cause. For instance, a drug might reduce your pain very effectively, but also cause confusion and increase the risk of falling over. It is a matter of the lesser evil I suppose, something that in reality is often hard to gauge.
Controlled breathing is a wonderful example of a situation where there is only an upside. It is unlikely to cause any problems.
In addition to the exciting observation it might reduce amyloid, it is also known to reduce stress and help lower blood pressure and there is evidence it can improve immunity and help manage pain.
There are of course many other variables that affect the risk of dementia, but it is wonderful to think that something as simple and straightforward as the right approach to breathing may help.
You have plenty of exhalations in your day so why not give it a try!
Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online. Visit yourbraininmind.com or