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Women who are fit in middle age are 90% less likely to get dementia

Women who are fit in middle age are 90% less likely to get dementia

Maybe it's time to squeeze in a workout today? A new study from Sweden shows that women who were physically fit in mid-life were nearly 90% less likely to get dementia decades later.

Researchers followed the study group, who had completed initial exercise tests, for 44 years from middle age. They found that although the groups lived just as long,  those who were physically fitter - and could ride an exercise bike at a fast rate for 6 minutes in the initial test - had a much lower risk of dementia later on than those who couldn’t complete the workout.

The study in the journal Neurology, couldn’t prove that exercise prevented dementia, and the findings aren’t a surprise - it’s long been known there’s a correlation between exercise and decreased dementia risk - but the results were particularly dramatic.

They found of those who

  • were very fit - those who could bike the hardest over 6 minutes - about 5% developed dementia
  • had medium fitness - 25% developed dementia
  • could not complete the test - 45% developed dementia

Overall, women who were highly fit compared to those who were moderately fit were 88% less likely to develop dementia, or if they did, they developed it at a much later stage - at an average age of 90 years or 11 years later.

“I’m very surprised that the finding was so strong,” said Ingmar Skoog, the paper’s senior author and a psychiatry professor at The University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “It really shows the importance of exercise."

However, the study was fairly small — only 191 women took the initial fitness test, which means it’s hard to maintain statistical significance while breaking the group down into sub-categories of more or less fit. And all women in the study were Swedish, which limits the ability to generalize its conclusions to a more diverse population.

Alzheimer’s and other dementias are believed to begin 15-20 years before symptoms even appear, so it makes sense that exercising in mid-life would affect the risk, Skoog said. Exercise alone is not likely to prevent Alzheimer’s, but the study shows people are not helpless in the face of one of the most feared, costliest and common diseases of old age, he added.

And the same activities that help prevent Alzheimer’s - including avoiding smoking, getting adequate exercise and sleep and eating a healthy diet - also prevent cardiovascular disease, he said, making them even more worthwhile. “You can do something yourself to decrease your odds,” Skoog said.

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