Cold water swimming has been mooted as a potential treatment for depression, but could it also help slow dementia? Scientists studying winter bathers have reasons to be optimistic
United by a perverse penchant for hypothermic temperatures and an aversion to wetsuits, cold water swimmers in the northern hemisphere are once again indulging in a season of winter bathing.
It is a curious hobby that has been mooted as a potential treatment for depression, which may help explain why the UK’s lidos and swimming clubs report a boom in membership. Now researchers reckon regular icy dips could also offer clues in the hunt for a treatment for dementia.
Scientists at the University of Cambridge studied winter bathers at London’s unheated Parliament Hill Lido, and found that when exposed to cold water their bodies produced a protein that is believed to slow dementia.
The research is in its early stages, but supports existing studies that suggest low temperatures trigger the production of a ‘cold-shock protein’ called RBM3. Scientists believe RBM3 enables synapses in the brain to re-form lost connections in the same way that the brains of hibernating animals do when they emerge from winter.
Cold water swimming is not for everyone and can be dangerous to people with certain health conditions. The challenge for researchers, therefore, is to create a drug that stimulates the production of RBM3 and also prove that it does indeed slow dementia.
According to the NHS, around 850,000 people in the UK live with dementia – a figure set to rise to 1m by 2025 on account of the country’s ageing population.
Prof Giovanna Mallucci, who runs the UK Dementia Research Institute’s Centre at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC that delaying dementia by even a short period could help individuals and also reduce the economic cost of the disease.
“If you slowed the progress of dementia by even a couple of years on a whole population, that would have an enormous impact economically and health-wise,” she said.
Main image: Todd Quackenbush