How Cold Water Swimming May Dilute Dementia & Even Repair Damage Done – Eureka Moment For Cambridge Researchers Working With London Lido Winter Swimmers

2020-10-19 Reading Time: 4 minutes
degenerative diseases. research at Cambridge University indicates
Cold water puts the heat on dementia and degenerative diseases. research at Cambridge University indicates - image by Craig Lord

Cold water swimming, already lauded as a treatment for depression and related disorders, may protect the brain from degenerative diseases such as dementia, according to a team of researchers led by Prof Giovanna Mallucci, head of the UK Dementia Research Institute’s Centre at the University of Cambridge.

In an effort to get as close to hypothermic conditions in humans with triggering that dangerous condition, researchers worked with regular winter swimmers at London’s Parliament Hill Lido on what is now a a world first: a scientific breakthrough that discovered a “cold-shock” protein in the blood of cold-water swimmers.

Prof Mallucci believes that the discovery could point researchers towards new drug treatments which may help hold dementia at bay.

The research, which is in its early stages, is focussing on the processor hibernation among mammals, the spark for which is exposure to cold.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around 50 million people endure dementia. Nearly 60 per cent of those affected live in low- and middle-income countries. Every year, there are nearly 10 million new cases, says the WHO. The estimated proportion of the general population aged 60 and over with dementia at any given time is between 5 and 8 per cent.

Prof. Mallucci spoke on the BBC Radio 4 Today morning news program a few years ago to report that she and her team had discovered the said protein in mice exposed to cold and that this might prove to be valuable in research geared at finding treatments and even cures for degenerative diseases.

One of the problems the Cambridge team faced was clear: while exposing mice to hypothermia was allowed, replicating the same in humans could not be a part of the research.

Enter the winter swimmers at Parliament Hill Lido. They made contact with Prof. Mallucci after hearing her on Today and the testing began. Now, some five years on, the Cambridge team has reported that the brain-protecting protein found in mice exposed to extreme cold, is also present and distinct in cold-water swimmers.

More To Learn On Link To Cold Water Swimming

Cold-water swimmers are the first to highlight the dangers as well as the benefits of what they do. In the UK, some 400 people die each year of complications related to the dangers of exposure to extremely cold water (see ‘dangers’ below).

There is much more work to be done to discover what specific conditions may be required to promote the production of the ‘brain-protecting’ protein. Among questions are ‘do cold showers spark the same process?’; And what of saunas?

In Scandinavia and Germany, the benefits of regular saunas, with 15-min heat sessions followed by plunges into icy water or cold-shock showers have long been promoted as beneficial to health and capable of retarding certain conditions.

A 20-year study conducted with more than 2,300 participants at the University of Eastern Finland by Dr. Jari Laukkanen and his colleagues revealed regular sauna use (4-7 times per week) at 176 degrees F for 19 minutes lowered the risk for both Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

The Alzheimer’s Association includes sweating as an important way to improve brain health:

The Work of Dr. Laukkanen

In 2018, the Swedish Government adopted a national strategy for dementia care, one of the biggest challenges in world health as life expectancy averages continue to rise and projections suggest that trend shows no sign of waning (in Sweden, it’s 84 for women and close to 81 for men). years for men, compared with 63 and 60 in the 1920s; 66 and 63 in the 1930s; and 70 and 68 in 1950.

The Work Underway

The discovery of Prof Mallucci and team at Cambridge could point researchers towards new drug treatments which may help hold dementia at bay.

Cooling people down as a way of protecting brain and human tissue is not new: head injuries and cardiac conditions are often treated alongside cooling processes during surgery, for example. The work of Dr. Laukannen, Prof Mallucci and others. Has focussed on why cold has a protective effect.

Justin Rowlatt, chief environment correspondent for the BBC, describes the focus in these terms:

  • The link with dementia lies in the destruction and creation of synapses – the connections between cells in the brain.
  • In the early stages of Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases, these brain connections are lost.
  • This leads to the cascade of symptoms associated with dementia – including memory loss, confusion and mood swings – and, in time, the death of whole brain cells.
  • What intrigued Prof Mallucci was the fact that brain connections are lost when hibernating animals like bears, hedgehogs and bats bed down for their winter sleep.
  • About 20-30% of their synapses are culled as their bodies preserve precious resources for winter.
  • But when they awake in the spring, those connections are miraculously reformed.

The Dangers of Cold Water Swimming

Entering cold water can be shocking: it sparks a dramatic rise in heart rate and blood pressure, which can cause heart attacks and strokes in those with underlying illnesses. It can also cause a sudden halt to normal breathing: a gasp reflex and rapid breathing= can lead to drowning if water is inhaled.

Dr Heather Massey of Portsmouth University’s Extreme Environments Laboratory, told the BBC that there are some key things to remember, namely:

  • 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
  • But Dr Massey says don’t take a hot bath or shower.
  • Changes in your blood pressure as you are re-warming, can cause you to faint and risk traumatic injury.

Other useful resources:

Ice Swimming – Questions Answered

What to Know About Cold Water Swimming

A Different Take …

Funny … dark humour… no parents, no officials, left to her own devices and fate… (never go open water swimming alone)…

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