Dementia is a disease shrouded in mystery. Very little research has helped us understand its complexities– its causes and true effects. But a new study published today in Neurology, offers a new perspective that’s particularly pertinent to women.
Swedish researchers over a 44 year period conducted a study entitled ‘Prospective Population Study of Women in Göteborg.’ More than 1400 women took part between the ages of 38-60. They were interviewed, medically examined and had their health periodically tracked for the study’s duration.
The study paid specific attention to a group of 191 middle-aged women, who were instructed in the initial examination to ride a bike for a period of 6 minutes, pedalling harder toward the end.
By 2012, 44 of these women had been diagnosed with some form of dementia, typically Alzheimer’s disease. The women who had been categorised as highly fit however—40 in total—were far less likely to develop the disease. Only two of this group (5 percent of the peak fitness group) were diagnosed, compared to 23 women in the middle fitness group (25 percent); 19 women in the low fitness group (32 percent); and 9 women in the group who struggled to complete the test altogether (45 percent).
The researchers concluded that highly fit women were 88 percent less likely to develop dementia than even moderately fit women. Notably, the two women in the highly fit group who did in fact develop the disease, did so far later than the latter group– an average of 11 years difference.
“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,” explained the study’s author, Helena Hörder, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg, in a statement.
This is not the first study that points to the link between fitness and diagnosis, but it is likely the longest-running one. One study in the US for instance, found that both physically fit, middle-aged men and women were less likely to develop dementia over a 26-year-old period.
However, the studies can’t conclude whether exercise is the determining factor or indeed, if genetics plays the greater role.
Other randomised trials conducted previously have only found a weak link between exercise and optimal brain function. As such, Hörder and her team hypothesise there’s a threshold for when exercise stops being protective but believe it most likely extends to people who are middle-aged.
“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.
At any rate, it’s enough to convince us that those spin classes may just be worth the pain.