Have you tried DSB? The simple breathing exercise researchers say can lower risk of dementia - takes minutes

Man looking calm with his eyes closed

DSB is thought to generate the same nerve signals in the areas of the brain that are responsible for learning new motor skills

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Adam Chapman

By Adam Chapman

Published: 17/02/2024

- 12:51

Updated: 17/02/2024

- 13:13

A practice that's been recognised for millennia could help fight one of the 21st century's greatest threats, multiple studies suggest

Meditation has long preached the importance of paying attention to the breath, but research suggests the ancient technique could help fight one of the biggest health threats to the modern era: dementia.

Up to 1.7 million people could be living with dementia in England and Wales by 2040 alone.

Short of finding a cure, researchers are exploring novel ways of reducing the risk.

One promising approach is to engage in deep and slow breathing (DSB) - a simple technique that's been shown to provide cognitive benefits.

What is DSB and how do I do it?

DSB is a way of taking in and letting out less breaths per minute by altering the time spent on inhalation and exhalation.

"Adults normally breathe 16-18 times a minute. With practice, they can reduce the number of breaths to six to eight per minute," explained Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy.

Man closing his eyes and inhaling deep breaths

DSB may lower heart rate variability, subsequently reducing the risk of Alzheimer's disease

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You can do this via the 2:2:4 breathing technique:

  • Close the right nostril
  • Inhale through the left nostril for two seconds
  • Hold the breath for two seconds
  • Exhale from the right nostril for four seconds
Alternatively, try the 4: 7: 8 breathing method:

  • Use the diaphragm to breathe in for a slow count of four
  • Hold your breath for a slow count of seven
  • Breathe out slowly to a count of eight
"It's important to breathe out for longer than you breathe in or you are in danger of retaining carbon dioxide which causes carpopedal spasm – involuntary muscle contractions in the hands and feet," Dr Lee added.

What the research says

In a 2023 study, 45 elderly subjects at risk of dementia had their cognitive abilities tested before and after a period of DSB. Those who performed DSB half an hour before learning a new skill retained significantly more information than the groups that did not do the DSB beforehand.

"This benefit was still present 24 hours later. The authors believed that DSB is a simple technique that could be used in the community to help lower the rate of cognitive decline," explained Dr Lee.

Although more research is needed to understand this process, performing DSB generates the same nerve signals in the areas of the brain responsible for learning new motor skills.

These areas are: the prefrontal cortex, post-parietal cortex, limbic system, and the cerebral motor cortex.

"The prefrontal cortex is also involved in thought processes, and the creation of short-term memory, as well as regulating learning and control of emotions. As a result, they believe there is a close relationship between DSB and cognitive function," explained Dr Fox.

Woman with dementia staring solemnly into space

Up to 1.7 million people could be living with dementia in England and Wales by 2040


In another 2023 study, researchers recruited 108 healthy adults and randomised half the group to do DSB to increase their heart rate variability and the other half to use alternative calming strategies to lower their heart rate variability. They did this for 20-40 minutes a day.

As Dr Lee explains, the heart rate is dependent on the balance between the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). This is called heart rate variability.

"As we age, it becomes more difficult for the heart to switch on the PSNS. Heart rate variability also affects the levels of amyloid proteins in the bloodstream," she continued.

Amyloid proteins form plaques around brain cells and are thought to play a role in the development of Alzheimer's disease.

After four weeks, the DSB group were found to have a significant reduction in amyloid clumps in the bloodstream.

The researchers concluded that DSB may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

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