By Lisa Rapaport
(Reuters Health) – Middle-aged adults who escape to a sauna every chance they get to relax may have new reason to take this time to unwind – a Finnish study suggests a regular sauna habit is associated with a lower risk of strokes.
Researchers examined data on 1,628 adults who were 63 years old on average, had no history of stroke and typically used a sauna one to three times a week.
After following half of the participants for at least 15 years, the study team found that 155 people had a stroke. Compared to people who only used the sauna once a week, those who went four to seven times a week were 61 percent less likely to have a stroke during the study period, researchers report in Neurology.
“Since a majority of strokes can be attributed to elevated blood pressure (hypertension), sauna use may reduce the risk of stroke via reduction in blood pressure,” said lead study author Setor Kunutsor of the University of Bristol in the UK.
It’s also possible that saunas might help reduce the risk of stroke by lowering inflammation, reducing artery stiffness and resistance to blood flow through the circulatory system, Kunutsor said by email.
“Sauna is a safe activity and has a lot of beneficial health effects in addition to its stress releasing and relaxation effects,” Kunutsor said.
Adults who already have a regular sauna habit should take the results as encouragement to keep it up, Kunutsor added.
People who are not familiar with the use of sauna are advised to “begin with caution, test individual heat tolerance, and increase the frequency and intensity of sauna use slowly,” Kunutsor said.
“People who can undertake physical activity should not replace this with sauna,” Kunutsor added. “Ideally they should combine sauna with physical activity.”
The results translate to a rate of 8.1 strokes per year among every 1,000 people who used the sauna once a week, compared to 7.4 strokes per year for every 1,000 people who used the sauna two or three times a week.
Among people who used the sauna at least four times a week, however, just 2.8 out of every 1,000 per year had a stroke during the study.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how regular sauna use might help prevent strokes. Some people also can’t use a sauna, including individuals who have had a recent heart attack or stroke or suffer from conditions like chest pain, low blood pressure or acute infections.
Novices to sauna use should also proceed with caution because a single episode might trigger heart problems, dehydration or contribute to a stroke, especially if people fail to follow recommendations against alcohol use, Dr. Josef Heckmann of the Municipal Hospital Landshut in Germany notes in an accompanying editorial.
“For those who are not familiar with sauna bathing, it is advised to begin with caution, test individual heat tolerance, slowly increase the frequency and intensity of bathing, and ideally combine bathing with leisure physical activity,” Heckmann and a coauthor write.