Unfit teens run increased risk of developing epilepsy

Sep 12 2013

Young men who are in poor physical condition at 18 years of age run a greater risk of developing epilepsy later in life, an international study involving HMRI Director Professor Michael Nilsson has found.

In collaboration with researchers from the Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg, the study of more than 1,100,000 Swedish men showed that the elevated risk remained constant in the presence of other factors, such as hereditary issues, previous brain injuries and social economic conditions.

The men were tracked over a 40-year period using Sweden’s national disease register and test results from military conscription. Almost 7000 were diagnosed with epilepsy.

“Low physical fitness levels bring a 79 per cent higher risk of developing epilepsy later in life, compared with their peers who are in better physical shape,” Professor Nilsson said.

“The body develops better resistance to injury and illnesses a physical exercise increases connectivity in the neural network in the adult brain and strengthens several mental and physiological functions.”

Lead investigator Professor Elinor Ben-Menachem said the study was the first to compare physical fitness with the risk of epilepsy in people, but it confirmed results from previous animal studies.

“Our conclusion is that physical fitness affects the risk for epilepsy later in life in two ways,” she said. “Being in good physical shape at an early age strengthens the mechanisms that protect our brain over the long term, and people who exercise in their youth have a tendency to remain in good shape as adults.
“Our results can be interpreted such that the former is the most important factor, but it is likely a combination of both.”

Professor Nilsson said more research was needed to understand the exact connection between exercise and the occurrence of epilepsy, along with other neurological disorders like stroke and dementia. Eventually, exercise could be used as both a treatment and a form of prevention.

Around 400,000 Australians suffer from epilepsy. Symptoms of the neurological disease include sudden spasms and seizures which can be debilitating and life-threatening.

The article Cardiovascular fitness and risk of epilepsy: A Swedish prospective cohort study is published in the international journal Neurology.

Professor Michael Nilsson is Director of HMRI and a neurological researcher. HMRI is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health and the community.