Study links midlife fitness to lower risk of Alzheimer's

By Remekca Owens

People who are fit during middle age have a lower risk of developing dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease after age 65, UT Southwestern Medical Center research shows.

Dr. Jarett Berry
Dr. Jarett Berry’s study indicates people who maintain high midlife fitness have a lower risk of developing dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. (David Gresham Photo)

The study, published in February’s Annals of Internal Medicine, tracked 19,458 generally healthy patients who completed a preventive medical and fitness exam at The Cooper Institute when they were, on average, age 49. Researchers compared the subjects’ health and fitness levels at the time versus about 25 years later, based on Medicare data. Those who were highly fit were 35 percent less likely to develop dementia.

Patients’ fitness levels were measured according to an exercise treadmill test. Researchers also included other baseline variables such as body mass index, seated resting blood pressure, cholesterol, and fasting blood glucose.

“The exercise we do in middle age is relevant for not only how long we live, but also how well we live. These data provide insight into the value of lifelong exercise and its protection against dementia in older age,” said Dr. Jarett Berry, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and senior author of the study. “The fear of dementia in later life is real, and the possibility that exercise earlier in life can lower that risk is an important public health message.”

About one in eight people age 65 or older has Alzheimer’s disease, according to estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association. The health care cost for the 5.4 million Americans currently suffering from dementia is $200 billion, a figure the Association projects will increase to $1 trillion by 2050. While Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, other types such as vascular dementia (resulting from a stroke) and Parkinson’s disease also affect millions of Americans.

Previous studies led by Dr. Berry have shown that high midlife fitness also staves off chronic illnesses such as congestive heart failure and colon cancer later in life.

UT Southwestern is working with The Cooper Institute, the preventive medicine research and educational nonprofit at the Cooper Aerobics Center in Dallas, on a scientific medical research program aimed at improving health and preventing chronic diseases. The Cooper Center Longitudinal Study is one of the world’s most extensive databases, with detailed information from clinic visits that has been collected since Dr. Kenneth Cooper founded the Institute and clinic in 1970.

Other UT Southwestern researchers involved in the study were Dr. Myron Weiner, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and of Neurology and Neurotherapeutics; and Ang Gao, a biostatistical consultant in Internal Medicine. Researchers from the Institute and Stanford University’s Prevention Research Center also participated.

The study was funded with support from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and the American Heart Association.

Dr. Berry is a Dedman Family Scholar in Clinical Care.

Dr. Weiner holds the Aradine S. Ard Chair in Brain Science, and the Dorothy L. and John P. Harbin Chair in Alzheimer’s Disease Research.

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