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Physically fit women 90 per cent less likely to develop dementia

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Regular exercise during pregnancy shortens labour by 50 minutes, study finds
Women with high physical fitness at middle age were nearly 90 percent less likely to develop dementia decades later, compared to women who were moderately fit, according to a study published the March 14, 2018, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The study measured the women’s cardiovascular fitness based on an exercise test.

When the highly fit women did develop dementia, they developed the disease an average of 11 years later than women who were moderately fit, or at age 90 instead of age 79.

“These findings are exciting because it’s possible that improving people’s cardiovascular fitness in middle age could delay or even prevent them from developing dementia,” said study author Helena Hörder, PhD, of the University of Gothenburg in Gothenburg, Sweden. “However, this study does not show cause and effect between cardiovascular fitness and dementia, it only shows an association. More research is needed to see if improved fitness could have a positive effect on the risk of dementia and also to look at when during a lifetime a high fitness level is most important.”

For the study, 191 women with an average age of 50 took a bicycle exercise test until they were exhausted to measure their peak cardiovascular capacity. The average peak workload was measured at 103 watts. A total of 40 women met the criteria for a high fitness level, or 120 watts or higher. A total of 92 women were in the medium fitness category; and 59 women were in the low fitness category, defined as a peak workload of 80 watts or less, or having their exercise tests stopped because of high blood pressure, chest pain or other cardiovascular problems.

Over the next 44 years, the women were tested for dementia six times. During that time, 44 of the women developed dementia. Five percent of the highly fit women developed dementia, compared to 25 percent of moderately fit women and 32 percent of the women with low fitness. The highly fit women were 88 percent less likely to develop dementia than the moderately fit women.

Among the women who had to stop the exercise test due to problems, 45 percent developed dementia decades later.

“This indicates that negative cardiovascular processes may be happening in midlife that could increase the risk of dementia much later in life,” Hörder said.

Limitations of the study include the relatively small number of women involved, all of whom were from Sweden, so the results may not be applicable to other populations, Hörder said. Also, the women’s fitness level was measured only once, so any changes in fitness over time were not captured.

Also, another new research suggests that women who work out throughout their pregnancy are more likely to have a smoother and shorter childbirth.

Regular pelvic floor exercises, jogging and weight training shaves around 50 minutes off labour, according to the Spanish study.

Researchers monitored 508 women from their first trimester – half of whom were assigned to three one-hour workouts a week, while the others had antenatal counseling.

By the time the women gave birth, they found a clear correlation between length of labor and regular exercise.

Experts say it is likely down to the fact that physically fit women have stronger muscles to help them push their way through childbirth.

They said they hope these findings encourage pregnant women to get moving, since the idea that fitness could be dangerous was rejected by scientists long ago, and we now know exercise is key to preventing life-threatening complications during labour.

“We’re no longer promoting the idea of resting and putting your feet up,” Kara Whitaker, an exercise scientist at the University of Iowa, told the New Scientist.

“Labor and delivery is a very physically taxing event,’ she said.

“If you are physically stronger, you may have more muscle for the pushing stage.”

In the study, conducted by Ruben Barakat at the Technical University of Madrid, more than half the women gave birth naturally.

Of those, there was a huge disparity in the average labour time between those who had regularly exercised and those who hadn’t.

The exercise group had an average labor of seven hours and 30 minutes. Those in the counseling group – who learned about exercise benefits but didn’t do the same workout regime – had an average labor of eight-and-a-half hours.

According to Professor Barakat, ‘these results confirm the huge potential of physical exercise as an exceptional preventive element of anomalies and diseases that can establish the health of future populations in the case of pregnancy processes.’

The team is now in the initial stages of more trials, this time in Argentina and Canada, to assess how exercise affects the placenta.

Obstetricians say a major push to encourage exercise during pregnancy – and before pregnancy – could be a game changer for curbing the staggering death rates.


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