Swimming in cold water can protect the brain from degenerative diseases, such as dementia. People who regularly swim in winter have been found with a “cold-shock” protein in their blood.
The protein delays the progression of dementia and also repairs some of the damage it causes in mice. The result could guide researchers towards new drug therapies that can help keep dementia at bay.
Cooling The Brain
For decades, doctors have known that cooling people down will safeguard their brains. During surgery, individuals with head injuries and those who require heart operations are frequently cooled.
It’s still not completely understood why the cold has a protective effect on the brain. The link with dementia lies in the breakdown and development of synapses-the links between brain cells. These brain connections are lost in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases.
Hibernating animals like bears, hedgehogs and bats have their winter sleep, in which brain connections are lost. Approximately 20-30 percent of their synapses are culled while their bodies retain vital winter energy.
The Negatives of Cold Water On the Body
The cold has a heavy influence on the human body. A dramatic increase in heart rate and blood pressure is caused by the shock of entering cold water, which can cause heart attacks and strokes in those with underlying diseases.
It also causes a gasp reflex and quick breathing, which can lead to drowning if water is inhaled. The longer someone spends in the water, the slower the response they get. People may become clumsy and confused and find it difficult to get out of the water.
Things for seniors to remember before entering cold water:
- Before taking a dip in cold water, make sure you are fit and healthy. If in any doubt, check with your GP
- Swim with others who are accustomed to cold water and know local hazards
- Get out if you start to feel cold
- Find shelter, remove wet clothing and replace it with as many layers of warm, dry clothing as you can, including a woolly hat and gloves
- Keep moving around, do light exercise if you can, and don’t worry about shivering – it will help get you warm
Chemicals Released with “Cold-Shock”
The “cold-shock chemicals” that caused the process in 2015 were discovered by the Cambridge dementia team. They cooled ordinary mice and mice with Alzheimer’s disease, cooling their body temperature to below 35C. They discovered that only ordinary mice could repair their synapses on re-warming; the Alzheimer’s mice could not.
In ordinary mice, but not in others, they found levels of a “cold-shock” protein called RBM3 soaring. It indicated that the secret to the development of new links may be RBM3. In a separate experiment, they proved the link that showed brain cell deaths in Alzheimer’s disease could be prevented by artificially increasing the levels of RBM3 in mice.
Studying Cold In the Body
A medication that stimulates the development of RBM3 could help delay the progress of certain neurodegenerative diseases in humans, possibly even partially reversing them. In human blood, RBM3 had not been identified, so the natural next move was to find out whether the protein is present in the human population.
They were able to study this in humans by finding a small group that swims throughout the winter and a group that never swims, but practiced tai chi next to them. The protein was tested in the winter swimmers and a high number of them had elevated levels of RBM3. None of the Tai Chi group showed an increase in RBM3 levels or experienced these very low body temperatures.
Cold Slowing Down Dementia
As with hibernating mammals, the “cold-shock” protein is produced by humans. However, the dangers associated with being cold outweighs the possible benefits, so immersion in cold water is definitely not a possible cure for dementia.
To prove that it really helps in delaying dementia, the challenge is to find a drug that stimulates the production of protein in humans. Dementia primarily affects seniors, but even a relatively brief delay in disease onset can be a tremendous benefit to seniors and the general community. If you slowed down the development of dementia in an entire population by even a few years, it would have an immense economic and health impact.
Fairmont Grand Senior Living Community
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