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Can Being Fit Prevent or Delay Dementia?

A recent study indicated that fit women often develop dementia an average of 11 years later, if at all, than women who are moderately fit.

By
Brock Armstrong,

Photo of senior women doing situps

If you need another reason to get or stay fit as you age, a study on 191 women in Sweden just gave us even more motivation to get out there and move—and keep moving. The study was published in a recent online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology

This study showed that women with what was called "high physical fitness" in their middle age, were nearly 90 percent less likely to develop dementia in the decades to come when compared to women who were only "moderately fit." The researchers are quick to point out that more research is required to determine what stage in life it is most important to achieve this high level of cardiovascular fitness—but the results are pretty clear that once again, fitness plays an important role in healthy aging. 

High Physical Fitness and Dementia

In the study, the 191 women (average age of 50) were asked to ride a stationary bicycle until they were exhausted to measure their peak cardiovascular capacity. The workload was measured (as it often is on a bike) in watts. The average peak workload for all the women was 103 watts.

After the test, it was determined that 40 of the women met the criteria for a "high fitness level" which equaled 120 watts or higher. 92 women were in the "medium fitness" category, and 59 women were in the "low fitness" category which was measured as 80 watts or less or having to stop the test due to a high blood pressure reading, chest pain, or other cardiovascular issues.

Only five percent of the highly fit women developed dementia.

The study followed the women for the next 44 years, during which time the women were tested for dementia a total of six times. During those years, a total of 44 of the women developed dementia. But interestingly, only five percent of the highly fit women developed dementia, compared to 25 percent of moderately fit women and 32 percent of the women with low fitness.

In the end, the highly fit women were 88 percent less likely to develop dementia than even the moderately fit women. And if the highly fit women did develop dementia, they started showing signs of the disease about 11 years later than women who were moderately fit. The researchers said that correlated to the women developing it at age 90 instead of age 79.

How Does Exercise Prevent Dementia?

Study author Helena Hörder, Ph.D., of the University of Gothenburg in Gothenburg, Sweden said "These findings are exciting because it's possible that improving people's cardiovascular fitness in middle age could delay or even prevent them from developing dementia. However, this study does not show cause and effect between cardiovascular fitness and dementia, it only shows an association. More research is needed."

This study is not the only one that has shown a positive correlation between fitness and dementia. Even the official Alzheimer's website states "Leading a physically active lifestyle can have a significant impact on the well-being of people with dementia." Also, a study from the Mayo Clinic concludes that "moderate-intensity physical exercise should be considered as a prescription for lowering cognitive risks and slowing cognitive decline across the age spectrum." 

My take on all this is that even though this new study was done on a relatively small number of women (and all from Sweden) I still think that it provides enough evidence for me to renew my dedication to staying fit and active as the candles on my birthday cake begin to overtake the frosting.

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