The Athlete's Way

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How Fit Are You? Your Answer May Reveal Dementia Risk

Physical fitness and healthy lifestyle choices reduce the risk of dementia.

How would you rate your level of physical fitness? Do you consider yourself to be in "good shape" or "out of shape"? Researchers from Finland discovered that your answer to this question may reveal your future risk of developing dementia.

A recent collaborative study from Finland—which followed 3,559 adults for 30 years—found that a simple question about self-rated physical fitness in midlife holds valuable clues for assessing who is at an increased risk of developing dementia.

The Finnish researchers found that people who reported “poor” self-rated physical fitness in midlife (with a mean age of 50 years) were four times more likely to get dementia during the next three decades compared to those with “good” self-rated physical fitness.

Dr. Jenni Kulmala from the Gerontology Research Center at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland said, "Previous research has shown that self-rated health is a strong indicator of adverse health events. This is the first large population-based study investigating associations between self-rated physical fitness during the three decades from midlife to later life and dementia risk.”

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The researchers said that the association between poor self-rated physical fitness and dementia was most pronounced among people who did not have a strong genetic susceptibility for dementia which has been linked to being a carrier of the Apolipoprotein E ε4 allele.

A strong association with poor self-rated fitness was also observed among people with chronic diseases. "Chronic conditions independently increase the dementia risk. Furthermore, if a person additionally feels that his or her physical fitness is poor, the risk is even higher. In terms of dementia prevention, maintaining good physical fitness seems to be especially important for people with chronic diseases," Kulmala says.

What’s Good for Your Heart Is Good for Your Head

The new findings from Finland support the conclusion of another 35-year longitudinal study from Cardiff University called The Caerphilly Cohort Study which was released in December 2013. Their research of behaviors of 2,235 men aged 45-59 in Caerphilly, South Wales identified physical activity as being integral to having the best chance of remaining disease-free and reducing the risk of dementia.

In addition to being physically inactive, other lifestyle choices linked to dementia and disease are: 

  • Lack of social connections
  • High Body Mass Index
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet
  • High alcohol intake

"The size of reduction in the instance of disease owing to these simple healthy steps has really amazed us and is of enormous importance in an aging population," said Principal Investigator Professor Peter Elwood from Cardiff University's School of Medicine. "What the research shows is that following a healthy lifestyle confers surprisingly large benefits to health—healthy behaviors have a far more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure."

Dr. Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at the Alzheimer's Society, said: "We have known for some time that what is good for your heart is also good for your head, and this study provides more evidence to show that healthy living could significantly reduce the chances of developing dementia."

Christopher Allen, from the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the Caerphilly cohort study said: "The results of this study overwhelmingly support the notion that adopting a healthy lifestyle reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia. These findings will hopefully go a long way in encouraging people to carefully consider their lifestyle and how it will impact on their health in later years."

According to the researchers, people who consistently followed four or five of the healthy lifestyle behaviors experienced a 60 percent decline in dementia and cognitive decline—with exercise being the strongest mitigating factor—as well as 70 percent fewer instances of diabetes, heart disease and stroke, compared with people who followed none.

Professor Elwood concludes, "If the men had been urged to adopt just one additional healthy behavior at the start of the study 35 years ago, and if only half of them complied, then during the ensuing 35 years there would have been a 13 percent reduction in dementia, a 12 percent drop in diabetes, 6 percent less vascular disease and a 5 percent reduction in deaths."

Conclusion: Lifestyle Choices Can Reduce Your Risk of Dementia

The researchers conclude that perceived poor physical fitness and being inactive integrates several other lifestyle choices that have been previously linked to increased dementia risk. As with any lifestyle choice, people at any age can create daily habits that will decrease your risk for disease, dementia, and cognitive decline.

Jenni Kulmala concludes, "The perception of poor physical fitness is most likely affected by different factors for different people. Therefore, I would encourage those who rate their fitness as poor to think about the factors behind this perception. Increasing physical and social activity, making better dietary choices or quitting smoking, for example, could change the rating into more positive. Individual choices that make you feel physically better may substantially decrease your future risk of developing dementia."

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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