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The Hidden Perils of Your Desk Job: Can Sitting Raise Dementia Risk?

By Nicole Sell  •   November 6, 2023
•    Medically Reviewed By Dr. Christine Bishara, MD - Dec 13, 2023

Photo Credit: by Sarah Vardy, Flickr.com
Photo Credit: by Sarah Vardy, Flickr.com

In today's fast-paced, technology-driven society, millions of individuals spend the bulk of their workdays sitting at desks. While the immediate discomforts of a desk job, such as muscle stiffness or eye strain, are well-recognized, the potential long-term health implications of a sedentary lifestyle are far less understood. Emerging research within the fields of gerontology and cognitive health suggests a startling connection between prolonged sitting, often endemic to office jobs, and an increased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, in later life.

Understanding Dementia and Alzheimer's Disease

Dementia is an overarching term that describes a set of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, reasoning, or other thinking skills. This variety of symptoms is broad and affects individuals in multiple ways, with varying levels of severity. Many types of dementia exist, and many conditions cause it, making the landscape of this cognitive decline complex and multifaceted. Among these, Alzheimer's disease stands out as the most common cause of dementia, contributing to an estimated 60-80% of cases.

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills. In the early stages, an individual may experience mild confusion and difficulty remembering, but as the disease advances, it can dramatically interfere with daily tasks and normal functioning. The ultimate causes of Alzheimer's disease are not yet fully understood, but they are believed to include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

The intricacies of Alzheimer's involve the abnormal buildup of proteins around and inside brain cells. One of the hallmarks of the condition is the accumulation of amyloid plaques between neurons in the brain, and another is the buildup of tau protein inside cells. These changes are often present in the brain years before symptoms of the disease manifest, highlighting the insidious nature of Alzheimer's.

Although age is the most known risk factor for Alzheimer's disease, with the majority of individuals with Alzheimer's being 65 and older, it is not strictly a part of normal aging. While certain medications such as Aricept (donepezil) and Namenda (memantine) are currently used to help manage the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, there is no cure for the disease itself. These medications can temporarily help with memory and thinking problems in some individuals by influencing certain chemicals involved in carrying messages among the brain's nerve cells. However, they do not halt the underlying degeneration of neurons. The use, dosage, and effectiveness of these medications can vary among individuals, and they are subject to a doctor's prescription and guidance. Always consult with a healthcare professional for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations.

In light of the limitations of current therapeutic approaches, there is a growing emphasis in the scientific community on understanding the role of modifiable risk factors in the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease. These factors, unlike age and genetics, are elements of lifestyle or environment that can be changed or controlled. They include aspects such as physical activity, diet, cognitive engagement, and social interaction. Researchers are exploring how these elements contribute to the onset and progression of cognitive decline and if altering them could help delay or prevent the development of dementia.

The Sedentary Lifestyle: A Silent Culprit

One such modifiable risk factor is a sedentary lifestyle. In our modern world, a sedentary lifestyle has gradually become the norm for many people, significantly influenced by technological advancements and shifts in work nature. This lifestyle is characterized by prolonged periods of physical inactivity, where sitting at one's desk for extended intervals is a common scenario. While such a lifestyle may seem harmless on the surface, it is a silent culprit behind several health issues, extending beyond the commonly discussed problems like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Recent scientific inquiries suggest a more hidden, insidious consequence of physical inactivity: compromised brain health and an elevated risk of cognitive decline, including dementia.

When we delve into the specifics of a sedentary lifestyle's impact, particularly in mid-life, an alarming picture emerges. It's during these years that lifestyle choices begin to take a toll on our future health, laying the foundation for the development of chronic health conditions. Within this context, numerous studies have identified a stark correlation between physical inactivity and an increased risk of dementia, a syndrome linked to a continuing decline in thinking skills and the ability to perform everyday activities.

One of the critical factors underpinning this correlation is cerebral blood flow. Adequate blood supply is crucial for all regions of the brain, ensuring a consistent supply of oxygen and nutrients, thereby keeping brain tissues healthy. A sedentary lifestyle negatively impacts overall vascular health, leading to diminished blood flow. When our brain doesn't receive enough blood, neuronal networks may be deprived of essential nutrients, impairing cognitive functions and potentially contributing to the structural deterioration observed in dementia's pathophysiology.

The science behind this involves the understanding that prolonged physical inactivity can lead to decreased vascularization in the brain, contributing to cognitive impairment conditions. Reduced cerebral blood flow is a known risk factor for cognitive decline because it affects the brain's ability to remove waste products effectively. It also impairs the brain's neuroplasticity, which is crucial for learning and memory.

Moreover, a sedentary way of life affects the body's hormonal balance. Regular movement and exercise stimulate the release of various hormones and growth factors, some of which are critical for brain health. These substances, often referred to as 'neurotrophic factors,' support the survival and growth of neurons, assist in the formation of new blood vessels, and facilitate neurogenesis, the creation of new neurons in the brain. Among these, the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) stands out for its significant role in cognitive functions. Lower levels of these crucial hormones and growth factors, as seen in a sedentary lifestyle, can hinder brain function and neuroplasticity, reducing the brain's capacity to adapt and form new connections.

The reduction in physical movement is also closely tied to higher stress levels and symptoms of depression and anxiety, which can impair cognitive function and increase the risk of mental health issues. These emotional health stressors can contribute to a cycle of inactivity, where mental health challenges further reduce the motivation or ability to be physically active, thereby exacerbating the risks associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Movement after meals has especially been shown to help with stabilization of blood glucose levels and increasing blood flow to the brain.

The Senior Population: At a Crossroads

The twilight years can bring a well-earned rest and relief from daily toils, but they also pose unique health challenges, particularly concerning cognitive function. For the senior population, the revelations about sedentary lifestyles and their impact on brain health represent a crucial turning point. The retirement phase, often marked by a decrease in daily physical activities, comes with the risk of exacerbating the very conditions that contribute to cognitive decline.

Post-retirement life can often bring about a significant change in lifestyle. Without the structure of a 9-to-5 job, some individuals may find themselves slipping into a more sedentary routine. This is particularly concerning for those who have already led a sedentary lifestyle during their working years, as they enter retirement without the neuro-protective benefits accrued from regular physical activity. This double impact—a sedentary working life followed by an inactive retirement—can create a compounded risk that makes this demographic particularly vulnerable.

However, retirement also opens up a valuable allotment of free time, presenting a silver-lined opportunity. With more control over their schedules, retirees have the chance to engage in new or previously sidelined activities that can bolster their physical health and cognitive reserves. This period should ideally be seen as a time to take up interests that challenge the body and brain in different ways, such as learning a new language, practicing a musical instrument, joining social or community groups, volunteering, or even taking part-time jobs that encourage different forms of engagement.

It's important for seniors and those approaching retirement to recognize this life stage as a crossroads. One path leads to increased physical and mental inertia, which research suggests can expedite cognitive decline. The other path, however, is paved with proactive choices toward a healthier lifestyle. Incorporating more physical activities into daily routines, such as regular walks, yoga, swimming, or group exercises, can have profound benefits. These aren't just limited to physical well-being; they also encourage social interaction, a known factor in promoting cognitive health.


The correlation between a sedentary lifestyle, as typified by long hours at a desk job, and an increased risk of dementia is a call to action for employees, employers, health professionals, and policymakers alike. While medications can help manage dementia symptoms, the goal is to prevent or delay the onset by altering the risk factors within our control. This goal necessitates a holistic approach to health, recognizing the intricate interplay between physical activity, cognitive stimulation, and mental well-being.

As we continue to understand the complexities of diseases like Alzheimer's, it becomes increasingly clear that the choices we make today, including how much we move, can have profound implications for our future selves. Whether it's opting for a standing desk, taking a walk during lunch breaks, or prioritizing regular exercise, these decisions are investments in our cognitive reserves and overall health in the years to come.



The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.