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Objective To investigate whether greater cardiovascular fitness in midlife is associated with decreased dementia risk in women followed up for 44 years.
Methods A population-based sample of 1,462 women 38 to 60 years of age was examined in 1968. Of these, a systematic subsample comprising 191 women completed a stepwise-increased maximal ergometer cycling test to evaluate cardiovascular fitness. Subsequent examinations of dementia incidence were done in 1974, 1980, 1992, 2000, 2005, and 2009. Dementia was diagnosed according to DSM-III-R criteria on the basis of information from neuropsychiatric examinations, informant interviews, hospital records, and registry data up to 2012. Cox regressions were performed with adjustment for socioeconomic, lifestyle, and medical confounders.
Results Compared with medium fitness, the adjusted hazard ratio for all-cause dementia during the 44-year follow-up was 0.12 (95% confidence interval [CI] 0.03–0.54) among those with high fitness and 1.41 (95% CI 0.72–2.79) among those with low fitness. High fitness delayed age at dementia onset by 9.5 years and time to dementia onset by 5 years compared to medium fitness.
Conclusions Among Swedish women, a high cardiovascular fitness in midlife was associated with a decreased risk of subsequent dementia. Promotion of a high cardiovascular fitness may be included in strategies to mitigate or prevent dementia. Findings are not causal, and future research needs to focus on whether improved fitness could have positive effects on dementia risk and when during the life course a high cardiovascular fitness is most important.