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Data from Alzheimer’s Disease International revealed that for every 3 seconds, someone in the world develops dementia. With about 50 million worldwide already affected by the disease as of 2017—and 5.5 million in the United States alone—more people are becoming conscious about this debilitating, often age-related disease. However, a 44-year study is presenting a bold idea, especially for women: become physically fit and become 90 percent less likely to get dementia. Now that’s the real deal on the connection between exercise and dementia prevention!

While the intricacies of what truly causes dementia is still being debated to this day, the decades-long study published in the Neurology journal reveals ample evidence that staying fit helps keep the mind and body sharp even in one’s senior years and beyond.

Finding the Link Between Exercise and Dementia Prevention: A 4-Decade Study

In the study titled, “Midlife cardiovascular fitness and dementia: A 44-year longitudinal population study in women”, a team of Swedish researchers went through data from a then-ongoing project lasting from 1968 to 2012. In their findings, middle-aged women who had a high degree of cardiovascular fitness were about 90 percent less likely to have dementia later in life compared to people who had moderate or low fitness levels.

In addition to this, they also found that the highly fit women who still eventually developed dementia did not get symptoms until about 11 years later compared to the moderately fit women who also had an onset of dementia. Also, in the study, the women were highly fit as they exercised every day—meaning to say they were not necessarily athletes. Results also suggested that people who have a tendency to develop dementia may already be showing physical symptoms while they are younger.

“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,” says Helena Hörder, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg.

Other Supporting Studies

This 44-year study was not the first study—assessing the relationship of exercise and dementia prevention —to conclude that exercise and fitness help ward off dementia. However, it is the one that spanned the longest amount of time. In fact, an earlier study titled, “The Association Between Midlife Cardiorespiratory Fitness Levels and Later-Life Dementia”, was published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health. The team conducting the study found an association between midlife cardiorespiratory fitness levels and the development of dementia. In fact, they analyzed and found that both men and women who were fit middle-aged people were less likely to develop dementia. The study did not focus on the role of exercise but rather on the overall fitness of participants’ hearts and lungs.

“More research is needed to see if improved fitness could have a positive effect on the risk of dementia and also to look at when during a lifetime a high fitness level is most important,” Hörder says.  “You don’t need to be a marathoner to achieve the ‘highest’ level of fitness described in this study,” shares Nicole Spartano, a researcher who is conducting a similar study at Boston University. “I would go so far to say that is very possible for even completely sedentary women to achieve this ‘high’ fitness level.”

An Exciting Future Ahead

While there is still no cure yet for dementia, efforts such as these studies have enabled the population to become more aware and even understand the correlation between exercise and dementia prevention. Moreover, it has allowed them to modify their behaviors to potentially delay or even prevent the onset of the disease.

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