Exercise drastically cuts odds of women developing dementia, study finds

Modesto Morganelli
Marzo 15, 2018

Researchers found that middle-age women in Sweden with a high degree of cardiovascular fitness were almost 90 percent less likely to develop dementia later in life than those who had a moderate fitness level.

The Alzheimer's Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the United Kingdom today. At the beginning of the study, all the women had to cycle as hard as they could on an exercise bike to test their cardiovascular fitness.

It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the United Kingdom by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.

The study, published online by the journal Neurology, measured the women's cardiovascular fitness based on an exercise test. The average peak workload was measured at 103 watts.

Some of the women had to interrupt their cycling test at submaximal workload, before being pushed to maximal capacity, mainly due to changes seen on an electrocardiograph or due to high blood pressure. The analysis showed that 32 percent of the women with a low fitness score developed dementia during the study period, compared with 25 percent of those women with a medium fitness score and 5 percent of the highly fit women. During that time, the researchers tracked the women's health, taking a close look at who was diagnosed with dementia and who was not.

The researchers found that among all of the women, 44 of them (or 23%) developed dementia from 1968 to 2012.

Dr Herder added: "This indicates that negative cardiovascular processes may be happening in midlife that could increase the risk of dementia much later in life".

When the highly fit women did develop dementia, they developed the disease an average of 11 years later than women who were moderately fit, or at age 90 instead of age 79.

She said limitations of the study included the relatively small number of women involved, all of whom were from Sweden, so the results may not be applicable to other groups.

Also, the findings were not causal. So more research is also needed to determine whether improved fitness could have positive effects on dementia risk and when in life a high fitness level is most important.

So people could try to reduce their risk of cognitive decline by engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise, stopping smoking, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, staying socially engaged, challenging their minds by reading or playing games and of course taking care of their heart health, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Still, he said, "the picture that is really emerging from the literature is a picture about the importance of fitness in midlife, not just old age, when it comes to protecting your brain health and preventing or delaying Alzheimer's disease and other dementias".

"Some of it may be the indirect effects of control in cardiovascular risk factors", Dr. Narula said.

In addition, having higher levels of fitness seemed to delay the onset of dementia.

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