Study finds physically fit women less likely to get dementia

Mature Asian woman jogging in beautiful autumn city park in colorful fall foliage.

Image: Maridav/

Can exercise ward off dementia? A 44-year Swedish study seems to indicate that it can.

‘Researchers found that middle-age women in Sweden with a high degree of cardiovascular fitness were nearly 90% less likely to develop dementia later in life than those who had a moderate fitness level.’ 

The University of Gothenburg study

Middle-age? The researchers studied women aged 38 to 60. The study began in 1968 with 191 women. Each was given an exercise test on a stationary bike—to cycle until they felt exhausted.

The women were then tracked for 44 years to see if they developed dementia in any form.

Results from the study

The researchers found that ‘those fitness test scores helped predict whether the women would be diagnosed with dementia later in life’.

They found that 32% of those with a low fitness score developed dementia. This was compared with 25% of those with a medium fitness score and 5% of the highly fit women.

However, ‘the highest dementia rates were seen in women who started the exercise test but could not complete it’. Some 45% of these women developed dementia.

From their study, researchers ‘suspect’ that ‘underlying cardiovascular processes—such as high blood pressure—in middle age might have made these women more vulnerable to dementia decades later’.

The report is careful to say that the study did not establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship. And, ‘it’s not clear why a woman’s fitness level at midlife might reduce her likelihood of dementia’.

Implications from the study

‘The findings suggest that high cardiovascular fitness is associated with a decreased risk of dementia,’ said lead author of the report, Helena Horder, from the Centre for Aging and Health at the University of Gothenburg. ‘In other words, good heart health is linked with good brain health,’ she said.

She added that improved fitness may add a protective effect by reducing cardiac risk factors by lowering blood pressure, creating a healthier body weight and producing a better lipid profile.

‘Emerging evidence also suggests that cardiovascular fitness may directly affect structures in the brain, by increasing blood flow to them.’

While they’re being careful to not overstate the implications from the test—as they should (191 is not a large sampling)—the physical-mental link is a reality. And recognised.

For instance, Srini Pillay for Harvard Health says, ‘Your mind and body are intimately connected. And while your brain is the master control system for your body’s movement, the way you move can also affect the way you think and feel.’

So, while the Swedish report needs to be taken with caution, an editorial in the journal Neurology, where the report was first published, echoed Horder: ‘What is good for the heart really does seem to be good for the brain also.’

Bruce Manners: the author of Retirement Ready?, Refusing to Retire, and founder of

Category: Ageing, Brain Health, Physical Health

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