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Could Sea Swimming Help Prevent Dementia?
Scientists believe swimming in cold water, such as the sea, could help prevent degenerative brain diseases like dementia. Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered a “cold-shock” protein in blood samples from regular winter swimmers. In laboratory tests, it has been found to slow the progress of dementia and even repair some of the damage already present. The discovery is still in its early stages but it could lead to new drug treatments that may help treat dementia in the future. Benefits of sea swimming The benefits of sea swimming were realised even before the link with dementia treatment was revealed – it is good for both the body and mind. The power of the sea has been helping people to beat depression, according to the Cardiff-based National Centre for Mental Health. The institution has published details of cold water therapy projects across the UK that are using the sea to conquer participants’ mental health problems. Numerous studies and tests, going back more than a decade, have concluded cold therapy can help treat various conditions. Some researchers suggest it can be more effective than medication. One of the main therapy courses operating UK-wide is the Wave Project’s Surf Therapy charity. It is helping people suffering from conditions such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder to improve their mental health through surfing. Following the successful 2010 pilot scheme in Cornwall, supported by the NHS: around 6,000 volunteer surf mentors are providing the service, free of charge, based on cold water therapy. Sea swimming and dementia The latest scientific research suggesting cold water therapy can help battle dementia further advances the belief that it’s a useful treatment for the mind and body. More than one million people in the UK are currently living with dementia. This total is expected to double by 2050. Research is ongoing into better ways of treating the condition. Currently, the options have only limited success. The latest findings of the “cold-shock” protein in the bloodstream of regular winter swimmers have particularly interested scientists researching dementia treatment. They have been striving to understand exactly what the link is. How does sea swimming help? Researchers believe the link lies in the creation and destruction of synapses, the cell connections within the brain. The brain connections are lost in the early stages of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. This leads to various symptoms such as loss of memory, mood swings and confusion. Over time, the brain cells die, worsening the condition. Leading the research, Professor Giovanna Mallucci, of the University of Cambridge UK Dementia Research Institute, was intrigued to find the same brain connections were lost when animals such as hedgehogs, bears and bats were hibernating over winter. The animals lose up to 30% of their synapses because their body is preserving vital resources over winter. However, in spring, when they awake, the connections reform in a miraculous way. The scientists believe the “cold-shock” protein, RBM3, is the key to their continuing dementia research. The cold water swimmers agreed to have their blood tested for RBM3 after Prof Mallucci asked for volunteers in an interview on the radio. Martin Pate stepped forward. As one of a small group of people who swim in an unheated, open-air pool on Hampstead Heath in London all year round, he felt he and his friends would be ideal subjects. The tests revealed a significant number of the swimmers had elevated RBM3 levels. Their bodies had reached a core temperature as low as 34°C. Benefits vs risks Prof Mallucci said that people produced the “cold shock” protein in the same way as hibernating animals. However, the scientists’ challenge now is conducting further research and finding a safe way to administer the treatment to people who need it. Currently, there are risks associated with people getting extremely cold. Elderly people in particular may get hypothermia, so it isn’t feasible for many of them to simply take up cold water swimming as a potential dementia treatment. Prof Mallucci says the medical profession needs to create a drug that will stimulate the production of the RBM3 protein in humans. More research is required to prove it can help delay dementia before such a drug can be manufactured. Scientists believe that because dementia and similar diseases mainly affect the elderly, finding a drug that could slow down their progress even for two or three years could be invaluable to improve people’s quality of life. Enjoying the water The Alzheimer’s Society promotes swimming as a good activity to benefit people mentally and physically, whether they have Alzheimer’s or not. Anyone thinking of taking it up as a regular activity, especially if they are older or infirm, should speak to their GP first and if necessary, have a full health check before taking the plunge. To help delay the onset of dementia, you should also keep active, eat healthily, drink less alcohol, stop smoking and keep in touch with other people, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.

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