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      Being physically fit in midlife is associated with a lower risk of dementia in old age, a new study reports.

Between 1971 and 2009, 19,458 healthy adults younger than age 65 took a treadmill fitness test as part of a broader health examination. Researchers followed the subjects through their Medicare records for an average of 24 years.

After adjusting for age, smoking, diabetes, cholesterol and other health factors, the researchers found that compared with those in the lowest 20 percent for fitness in midlife, those in the highest 20 percent had a 36 percent reduced risk of dementia.

The reason for the association is unclear, but it was independent of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular risk factors for dementia, suggesting that both vascular and nonvascular mechanisms may be involved.

“Dementia is a disease with no cure and no good therapies,” said the lead author, Dr. Laura F. DeFina, the interim chief scientific officer at the Cooper Institute in Dallas. Physical activity may be “a preventive way to address dementia instead of addressing the costs of a disabled elder.”

The study population was largely white and highly educated, and the researchers acknowledge that their findings, published last week in The Annals of Internal Medicine, cannot be generalized to other populations. They emphasize that the study is observational and does not prove causation.

Published by The New York Times. February 11, 2013, 5:20 pm

A version of this article appeared in print on 02/12/2013, on page D4 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Fitness May Prevent Dementia.
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