One of the best ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease in old age is to remain physically active in the preceding years, Finnish researchers recently discovered.

Investigators found that middle-aged people engaged in physical activity at least twice a week had a lower risk of dementia than those who were less active. The protective effects of an active lifestyle were especially pronounced among overweight individuals. Even people who became more physically active after midlife appeared less likely to experience dementia.

Full findings appear in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

Several modifiable risk factors for dementia were suggested, but further refinement of this information is essential for effective preventive interventions targeted at high-risk groups, experts agree. 

Leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) is a particularly important due to its broader effects on health in general and cardiovascular health in particular. Previous research has yielded inconsistent evidence on the association between LTPA and dementia, possibly because of short follow-up time, intensity of physical activity or population characteristics such as sex, body mass index, age or genetic risk factors of dementia.

Recent findings from the Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging and Incidence of Dementia (CAIDE) Study demonstrated that those who engaged in LTPA two times or more each week had a relatively lower risk of dementia. 

The findings were not explained by socioeconomic background, age, sex, genetic risk factors, obesity, weight loss, general health status or work-related physical activity.

These results suggest that the window of opportunity for physical activity interventions to prevent dementia may extend from midlife to older ages. Results from currently ongoing trials, such as the Finnish multi-center trial FINGER, may give more detailed information about the type, intensity, and duration of physical activity interventions.

In an unrelated study released last year, British investigators at Cardiff University found that regular exercise is the most effective single lifestyle choice people can make to reduce their risk of dementia.