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Association between sedentary behaviour and risk of dementia: an evidence gap

Dear Editor,

Given the lack of a cure, it is important to investigate risk factors for dementia to target prevention initiatives. A study recently published in Translational Psychiatry by Yan et al.1 examines the association between sedentary behaviour [sic] and the risk of dementia. However, the authors have misused the term sedentary behaviour, which misrepresents their findings and leads to a false conclusion. Historically, sedentary behaviour was used to denote lack of physical activity. Now ‘sedentary behaviour’ is defined as “any waking behaviour characterized by energy expenditure ≤1.5 metabolic equivalents while in a sitting, reclining or lying posture”2. In contrast, the term ‘physical inactivity’ is defined as “an insufficient physical activity level to meet present physical activity recommendations”2. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) states the global physical activity guidelines as 150 min of moderate-intensity, or 75 min of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity a week (WHO, 20203). As many people in today’s society are both physically inactive and sedentary4, it is imperative that we differentiate between these two terms.

Ten years ago, Owen and colleagues clearly defined and differentiated the various health consequences of too much sitting (sedentary behaviour) versus physical inactivity5. In 2012, the Sedentary Behaviour Research Network (SBRN) was aware of the inconsistencies in the terminology around sedentary behaviour and proposed a formal definition of sedentary behaviour, which was updated in 2017 (see above). Given the increasing evidence on the deleterious associations of sedentary behaviour with health outcomes6, the Sedentary Behaviour Council of the International Society of Physical Activity and Health successfully advocated for the (United States) National Library of Medicine to create a sedentary behaviour Medical Subject Heading (MESH) term7. Without the proper definition and use of these terms going forward, future research will be confused by their inappropriate use.

Sedentary behaviour research is well established with evidence accumulating for over two decades on deleterious associations with health outcomes such as a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (fatal and non-fatal), and all-cause mortality6. More nascent evidence is emerging on the relationship of sedentary behaviour with cognitive function. Since 2016, there have been four systematic reviews published indicating mixed associations between various sedentary behaviours and cognitive function8,9,10,11. The first review by Falck et al.9 indicated that higher levels of sedentary behaviour are associated with lower cognitive function. Copeland et al.8 then indicated that the association may vary depending on the domain of sedentary behaviour being assessed. Finally, Loprinzi10 and Olanrewaju et al.11 stated an overall lack of clarity in the association of sedentary behaviour with cognitive function. Overall, although there was a slight trend towards more sedentary behaviour being associated with worse cognitive function, none of these reviews were able to distinguish a clear association of sedentary behaviour with the risk of dementia. Therefore, a gap remains, which was why we were encouraged to read this article by Yan et al.1. However, upon further investigation of the article, it became clear that it does not address this association, and thus, the gap still remains. More specifically, the article fails to properly define ‘sedentary behaviour’ as the exposure variable. As a result of this, none of the studies included within the systematic review and meta-analysis by Yan et al.1 were in fact reporting ‘sedentary behaviour’ as the exposure variable but rather physical inactivity (see Table 1). Hence, it is recommended that the authors revise their manuscript to remove any mentions of sedentary behaviour and replace them with ‘physical inactivity’. This would result in the conclusion that ‘physical inactivity’ is significantly associated with an increased risk of dementia, while the association of ‘sedentary behaviour’ with dementia still warrants further investigation. To address this gap, future studies should use the definition of sedentary behaviour supported by SBRN and use devices, e.g., activPAL inclinometer ( in conjunction with a subjective questionnaire to capture the context and specific types of sedentary behaviours. This will allow us to quantify the risk of sedentary behaviour on development of dementia in meta-analysis and also identify any differences in sedentary behaviour in people with and without dementia. Given the often-long time frame to develop dementia, interventions should consider using proxy measures such as cognitive function to assess their impact on health outcomes.

Table 1 Description of exposure variables used within each study of Yan et al.’s1 meta-analysis.


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Correspondence to Kirsten Dillon.

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Dillon, K., Gardiner, P.A. Association between sedentary behaviour and risk of dementia: an evidence gap. Transl Psychiatry 11, 195 (2021).

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