The number of Americans currently living with Alzheimer’s disease exceeds 5 million – a number that the Alzheimer’s Association estimates will triple by the year 2050. And, while rates of some degenerative conditions, such as heart disease, have decreased since 2000, deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have soared by an astonishing 89 percent – causing researchers and scientists to scramble to find methods of treating and preventing this debilitating disease, like the use of a sauna.
Now, a new study shows that a time-honored and relaxing Scandinavian tradition can drastically reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In truth, many traditional cultures – like the Native Americans – understand the physical (and spiritual) value of sweating inside a sweat lodge or sauna. Frequent use of a sauna is great for detoxification and lowers the risk of dementia In a Finnish population study spanning 20 years and involving 2,315 healthy middle-aged men, researchers examined the relationship between participants’ sauna habits and their odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
The study – the first to examine the effect of sauna bathing on rates of dementia – was helmed by Professor Jari Laukkenen, of the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Eastern Finland, and published last December in Age and Aging.
The use of saunas is an extremely popular and widespread cultural tradition in Finland, with over 3 million public and private saunas existing in a country of 5.4 million. The study participants – all regular sauna users – were divided into three groups: those who enjoyed a 15-minute sauna session four to seven times a week, those who used a sauna two to three times a week, and those who did so only once a week. What the researchers discovered was eye-opening: the most frequent sauna users enjoyed a dramatic 66 percent decrease in their risk of dementia and a 65 percent decrease in Alzheimer’s risk – when compared to the weekly users. Those who used a sauna two to three times a week also lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia – cutting their odds by roughly 20 percent. But they didn’t enjoy the same robust level of protection as the most frequent sauna users.
And the benefits of frequent sauna use don’t end there. Dr. Laukkenen noted that the heat generated by saunas seems to protect not only the memory, but the heart as well.
Lifesaving effect: Frequent sauna use cuts the risk of heart disease and sudden cardiac death
In an earlier study, published in 2015 in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers found that those who used a sauna four to seven days a week had significantly lower mortality rates from heart disease, sudden cardiac death and stroke than did weekly users – a pretty substantial benefit for merely relaxing for 15 minutes in a heated room!
The team went on to report that frequent sauna use improves cardiovascular health – along with the condition and function of blood vessels – and is associated with lower blood pressure and enhanced left ventricular function. Not surprisingly, the researchers lauded frequent sauna use as a “recommendable habit.” Sauna bathing offers cardioprotective and neuroprotective benefits similar to that of exercise
Although researchers still aren’t certain of the exact mechanisms by which saunas improve health, they report that saunas may offer cardiovascular conditioning that is surprisingly similar to that resulting from aerobic exercise. Researchers in the JAMA study noted that sauna bathing causes skin blood flow to increase – leading to higher cardiac output and paralleling what happens during low and moderate intensity physical exercise. And, exercise has been shown to lower the risk of both Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. Specifically, aerobic exercise can help minimize Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain, and do so more effectively than any medication currently on the market. In one particularly significant study, vigorous exercise helped people with mild cognitive impairment to substantially decrease their levels of tau protein, a chemical in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
The takeaway? The experience of sweating in a sauna actually mirrors the benefits and neuroprotective effects of physical activity – a boon to people who can’t or won’t commit to vigorous exercise regimes.
More lifesaving benefits: Regular sauna use promotes tumor death and help eliminate carcinogens
As if these sauna benefits weren’t impressive enough, recent research supports the cancer-fighting effects of frequent sauna bathing. In a review published in Lancet Oncology, the authors credited heat therapy with beneficial effects in controlling cancers and boosting survival rates.
Because cancer cells are less tolerant of heat than healthy cells, the heat produced in a sauna can create “heat shock” proteins on their surfaces, causing them to be more susceptible to attack by the immune system. Research has shown that heat therapy also activates natural killer cells and macrophages – part of the body’s defense system (and mortal enemies of tumors). In short, raising body heat promotes tumor death – while sweating helps the body detoxify and eliminate assorted carcinogens, heavy metals and environmental toxins.
Thankfully, conventionally-trained medical experts and organizations are beginning to take notice. The American Cancer Society acknowledges heat therapy as a “promising” way to improve cancer treatment, while the National Cancer Institute notes that heat therapy has been shown to reduce tumor size. Of course, those experts (educated by the pharmaceutical industry) emphasize that heat therapy must be combined with other forms of cancer treatment to be effective like, chemotherapy. But, wouldn’t it be great to study the anticancer effects of sauna – along with natural therapies? (I would love to see those study results!) The upshot of the emerging sauna research seems to be this: while there is no substitute for actual physical exercise, sauna bathing seems to offer many great health benefits. Of course, you should get the go-ahead from a trusted, integrative physician before beginning an sauna bathing routine – especially if you’re dealing with a life-threatening health condition. Then, prepare to enjoy this relaxing, therapeutic and soothing custom – while slashing your risk of dementia and heart disease at the same time.