Exercise provides the key to preventing early-onset dementia

Mar 12 2014

Fit teenagers can ward off early-onset dementia.

A new international study has shown for the first time that teenagers with poor cardiovascular fitness and a lower IQ have a significantly increased risk of developing early-onset dementia and its precursors.

Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI) Director Professor Michael Nilsson collaborated with researchers at Gothenburg University’s Sahlgrenska Academy for the study, which is published in the international neurological journal Brain.

Using data from 1.1 million Swedish boys aged 18, the study found that those who had poorer cardiovascular fitness were 2.5-times more likely to develop early-onset dementia. A lower IQ brought a four-times greater risk, while a combination of poor fitness and low IQ entailed a seven-times risk increase.

Professor Nilsson says the risk remained elevated even when controlled for other factors, such as heredity, medical history, and socio-economic circumstances.

“We have previously seen a correlation between physical fitness and cognitive fitness, and now we can establish the connection with the increased risk of early-onset dementia,” Professor Nilsson said.

Professor Georg Kuhn, senior author of the publication, said cardiovascular fitness had a positive impact on neurological function, making the brain more resistant to damage and disease.

“Physical exercise increases nerve cell complexity and function and even generation of new nerve cells in the adult brain, which strengthens our mental and physiological functions,” he said.

Study leader Jenny Nyberg said people suffering early-onset dementia were often of working age and had children living at home, making the consequences even more serious.

“This makes it important to initiate more research into how physical and mental exercise can affect the prevalence of different types of dementia. Perhaps exercise can be used as both a preventative and treatment for those in the risk zone,” she said.

Professor Nilsson says HMRI and the University of Newcastle will further develop the partnership with the University of Gothenburg: “This research is so important because it will go onto influence how we conduct dementia rehabilitation and will potentially impact on dementia programs internationally.
“We will collaborate and use the information from this research to further understand this disease and hopefully provide some of the puzzle pieces surrounding dementia.”

Background: The Swedish data was collected from 1968 to 2005 during Sweden’s compulsory conscription, with all participants aged 18 at the time.

See full journal article here