Does Hard Physical Work Increase Risk of Dementia?

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The muscles and joints are not the only parts of the body to be worn down by physical work. The brain and heart suffer too. A new study from the University of Copenhagen shows that people doing hard physical work have a 55% higher risk of developing dementia than those doing sedentary work. The figures have been adjusted for lifestyle factors and lifetime, among other things.

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Medical Press’ recent article entitled “Hard physical work significantly increases the risk of dementia” explains that the general view has been that physical activity normally reduces the risk of dementia. In fact, another study from the University of Copenhagen recently showed that a healthy lifestyle can decrease the risk of developing dementia conditions by half. The form of physical activity is important, says associate professor Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen from the Department of Public Health at the University of Copenhagen.

People doing hard physical work have a 55% higher risk of developing dementia than those doing sedentary work, the study found.

“Before the study we assumed that hard physical work was associated with a higher risk of dementia. It is something other studies have tried to prove, but ours is the first to connect the two things convincingly,” says Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen, who has headed the study together with the National Research Centre for the Working Environment with help from Bispebjerg-Frederiksberg Hospital.

“For example, the WHO guide to preventing dementia and disease on the whole mentions physical activity as an important factor. But our study suggests that it must be a ‘good’ form of physical activity, which hard physical work is not. Guides from the health authorities should therefore differentiate between physical activity in your spare time and physical activity at work, as there is reason to believe that the two forms of physical activity have opposite effects,” Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen says.

She explained that even when you take smoking, blood pressure, overweight, alcohol intake and physical activity in a person’s spare time into account, hard physical work is linked with an increased occurrence of dementia.

One of the study’s co-authors, Professor MSO Andreas Holtermann from the National Research Centre for the Working Environment, said that he hopes the dementia study from the University of Copenhagen will contribute to the awareness of the importance of prevention, since changes in the brain begin long before the person leaves the labor market.

“A lot of workplaces have already taken steps to improve the health of their staff. The problem is that it is the most well-educated and resourceful part of the population that uses these initiatives. Those with a shorter education often struggle with overweight, pain and poor physical fitness, even though they take more steps during the day and to a larger extent use their body as a tool,” he remarked.

It’s not enough for workers to avoid heavy lifts, if they want to stay in the profession until age 70. People with a shorter education doing manual labor also need to take preventive steps, by strengthening the body’s capacity with exercise and strength training.

The study is based on data from the Copenhagen Male Study, which included more than 4,700 Danish men, who back in the 1970s reported data on the type of work they did on a daily basis. The study included 14 large Copenhagen-based companies. Through the years, the researchers have compiled health data on these men, including data on the development of dementia conditions.

Nabe-Nielsen said that previous studies have suggested that hard physical work may have a negative impact on the heart blood circulation, and thus also on the blood supply to the brain. This could result in the development of cardiovascular diseases, like high blood pressure, blood clots in the heart, heart cramps and heart failure.