Stroke risk link to teen mental and physical fitness

Mar 23 2016


Prof. Michael Nilsson

Using comprehensive health data from men aged 18, two international studies have highlighted a strong link between long-term stroke risk and both cardiovascular and mental fitness in early adulthood.

HMRI Director Professor Michael Nilsson, who worked on both projects with Swedish collaborators at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, believes there is increasing evidence of the need to stimulate mechanisms underpinning brain resilience around the time of adolescence.

 “It appears that being physically active triggers a cascade of health promoting signals that affect several important neuroactive factors and brain networks,” Professor Nilsson said.

“Our first study showed a significant correlation between aerobic fitness and, to a lesser degree, muscle strength to stroke risk. We tend to think that cardiovascular fitness is more influential but it seems you can gain added benefits if you combine muscular strength.”

The data was gleaned from a cohort of 1.2 million Swedish men born between 1950-1987. It was collated during their military conscription at the age of 18.

“Kids in the 1960s were often more active than those today so the risk factors may actually increase in years to come,” Professor Nilsson added. “I think it sends clear signals about the importance for kids to be physically active and should be considered in the school curriculum.”

A follow-up study published this month in the international journal Stroke singled out 45,000 men who had been diagnosed with a non-psychotic mental disorder in the form of anxiety, depression, personality disorders and addiction at 18 years of age. It showed that stroke was 2.6 times more prevalent in this group.

The greatest increase in risk involved addiction, with a figure of 60 per cent for alcohol and substance abuse. For those suffering depression and neurotic disorders, first-time stroke risk increased by 25%. These figures rose to over 50% for personality disorders. Corresponding figures for fatal stroke ranged between 40 and 60 per cent higher.

“The fact that common mental disorders can increase the risk of fatal stroke, in particular, is worrying,” Professor Nilsson said. “Mental vulnerability possibly impairs the brain’s ability to recover after stroke. But we also found that young men with high cardiovascular fitness were at less risk for stroke even if they had depressive or neurotic disorders.”

Dr Maria Aberg, from the University of Gothenburg, added: “To exercise regularly can be challenging particularly when you suffer from a mental disorder. More research will be required to understand which methods should be applied to motivate these people to participate in regular physical exercise.”

* HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.