The One Major Effect Walking Has on Your Dementia Risk, Says Research

A recent study confirms that a daily walk outside can do your brain a whole lot of good.

Going for a walk is a lot more powerful than you think. Sure, it provides you with a good workout for the day, but according to recent research, walking can also reduce your risk of developing dementia.

“There’s just something about walking and memory that is just tied together,” says New York City-based neurologist Dr. Marc Milstein, PhD, author of The Age-Proof Brain. “We have to activate our memory when we’re walking to remember locations. And we realize that this is just something that is embedded in our brain now, we see when people walk they increase the size of the part of their brain called the hippocampus and it’s important for memory.”

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“The studies are showing us—actually there’s one that just came out recently and there are others pointing us in the same direction—that getting about 30 minutes of walking in a day can lower the risk of dementia by 50% to 65% based on the studies,” says Milstein.

The research Milstein refers to is a recent cohort study in JAMA Neurology published in September 2022. The study evaluated the health records of over 78,000 adults, specifically looking at their walking habits’ association to their risk of developing dementia. After seven years of evaluating data, researchers concluded that participants with a higher number of steps during the day saw a lower risk of all-cause dementia. Researchers determined that the “optimal dose” of 9,800 steps a day, which can lower your risk by 50%, and a “minimal dose” of 3,800 steps a day was associated with a 25% lower risk.

“What’s interesting is that it doesn’t have to all be at the same time, so 30 minutes cumulative of walking. So every minute counts,” says Milstein.

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Your walking pace can also matter

“They’ve done these studies with memory that people who [walk at] a little faster pace scored better on a memory test than people who walked and didn’t pick up the pace, or to the people who didn’t walk at all,” says Milstein.

The JAMA Neurology cohort study concluded that participants who walked 30 minutes at a cadence of 112 steps per minute make a difference in reducing risk.

However, Milstein does mention that walking in general is beneficial for your risk—pace or no pace—and there’s always the option to kick it up a notch to reap further benefits. “There’s just something about a little faster pace somewhere within that walk, say from street sign to street sign to give yourself a little more of a push, it could make a big difference.”

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Blood flow is a powerful tool to fight your risk

“We’re learning that for memory loss, dementia has multiple factors, but one of the major factors is vascular,” says Milstein. “So how good and how efficient your heart is at delivering blood to the brain. We see that even little dips in oxygen can damage brain cells and thus damage memory.”

This is why researchers continue to point to physical movement as a means to lower dementia risk; lower levels of blood flow to the brain as well as stiff blood vessels have been associated with mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

“Anything from high blood pressure, or too low, can be a risk factor for memory loss,” says Milstein. “We see a significant number of people who develop dementia have an underlying heart issue. The hopeful side of this is that we have really good treatments for blood pressure and heart health. So we see it as a really powerful avenue to protect your brain by protecting your heart.”

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Workouts are great, but walks are best

Any physical movement can benefit the brain because it gets the blood flowing. Yet research continues to point walking in particular because of how it connects to the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center.

“There are these interesting studies where people have their feet hit the ground that they actually [experience] what we’re calling a pressure wave, it’s sending a signal from the feet up to the heart and to the brain, which can help improve communication,” says Milstein. “So any exercise is great, but there does seem to be something about walking.”

Walking or running on a treadmill can provide the same type of benefits, but the act of going outside gives your body the chance to breathe in fresh air and get some much-needed vitamin D. Some previous research even found being in nature can improve short-term memory by 20%.

“It’s a free activity, it’s simple to do. You can walk with a friend, park your car or get off the subway or bus stop early and walk a little more,” says Milstein. “It’s the cumulative effect, so ask yourself; how do I put a little bit more of this into my day?”

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Kiersten Hickman
Kiersten Hickman is a journalist and content strategist with a main focus on nutrition, health, and wellness coverage. She holds an MA in Journalism from DePaul University and a Nutrition Science certificate from Stanford Medicine. Her work has been featured in publications including Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Bustle, Buzzfeed, INSIDER, MSN, Eat This, Not That!, and more.