Fittest women cut dementia risk by 90% and for years longer

Bethan Mooney for TIME

Bethan Mooney for TIME

Women with high physical fitness at middle age were almost 90 percent less likely to develop dementia decades later, compared to women who were moderately fit, according to a study published the March 14, 2018, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

The Alzheimer's Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the United Kingdom today.

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

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.

A study following women over 44 years found exercise may protect against the devastating condition.

The fitness test was carried out in 1968, and experts say these women would be of average fitness now, when people exercise more. During that time, the researchers tracked the women's health, taking a close look at who was diagnosed with dementia and who was not.

Adjusting for people who died before they could ever develop the condition, the dementia risk was found to be 88 per cent lower for the fittest women.

Dr Hörder 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. 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.

For instance, other factors could have influenced the findings to help lower dementia risk, regardless of physical activity habits. "These are studies of correlations, and they can't necessarily talk about causality", said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association in Chicago, who was not involved in the new study. Of the 40 fittest women, only two went on to get dementia.

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. In other words, good heart health is linked with good brain health, she said.

"The reason for that is because the brain actually is what we would call a highly vascularized organ, meaning that your brain has many blood vessels", he said.

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

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