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Data from Alzheimer’s Disease International revealed that every three seconds, someone in the world develops dementia. With about 50 million worldwide already affected by it 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% less likely to get dementia.

While the intricacies of what truly causes dementia is still 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 senior years and beyond.

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% 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 eventually developed dementia did not get symptoms until about 11 years later compared to the moderately fit women that also had an onset of dementia.

In the study, the women were highly fit as they exercised every day – not necessarily that they’re athletes. Results also suggest that people who have a tendency to develop dementia may already be showing physical symptoms while they were 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,” said Helena Hörder, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg.

Other Supporting Studies

While it was not the first study to conclude that exercise and fitness helps ward off dementia, it is the one that spanned the longest amount of time. An earlier study titled, “The Association Between Midlife Cardiorespiratory Fitness Levels and Later-Life Dementia,” was published in the US National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health. The team found an association between midlife cardiorespiratory fitness levels and the development of dementia. In the study, 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 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 said.

“You don’t need to be a marathoner to achieve the ‘highest’ level of fitness described in this study,” said 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,” she affirmed.

While there is still no cure yet for dementia, efforts such as these have enabled the population to become more aware and allowed them to modify their behaviors to potentially delay or even prevent the disease.

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