The association between midlife cardiorespiratory fitness levels and later-life dementia: a cohort study

Ann Intern Med. 2013 Feb 5;158(3):162-8. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-158-3-201302050-00005.


Background: Primary prevention of Alzheimer disease and other types of dementia (all-cause dementia) is an important public health goal. Evidence to date is insufficient to recommend any lifestyle change to prevent or delay the onset of dementia.

Objective: To assess the association between objectively measured midlife cardiorespiratory fitness ("fitness") levels and development of all-cause dementia in advanced age.

Design: Prospective, observational cohort study.

Setting: Preventive medicine clinic.

Patients: 19 458 community-dwelling, nonelderly adults who had a baseline fitness examination.

Measurements: Fitness levels, assessed using the modified Balke treadmill protocol between 1971 and 2009, and incident all-cause dementia using Medicare Parts A and B claims data from 1999 to 2009.

Results: 1659 cases of incident all-cause dementia occurred during 125 700 person-years of Medicare follow-up (median follow-up, 25 years [interquartile range, 19 to 30 years]). After multivariable adjustment, participants in the highest quintile of fitness level had lower hazard of all-cause dementia than those in the lowest quintile (hazard ratio, 0.64 [95% CI, 0.54 to 0.77]). Higher fitness levels were associated with lower hazard of all-cause dementia with previous stroke (hazard ratio, 0.74 [CI, 0.53 to 1.04]) or without previous stroke (hazard ratio, 0.74 [CI, 0.61 to 0.90]).

Limitations: Dementia diagnoses were based on Medicare claims, and participants generally were non-Hispanic white, healthy, and well-educated and had access to preventive health care. This study evaluated fitness levels, so a specific exercise prescription cannot be generated from results and the findings may not be causal.

Conclusion: Higher midlife fitness levels seem to be associated with lower hazards of developing all-cause dementia later in life. The magnitude and direction of the association were similar with or without previous stroke, suggesting that higher fitness levels earlier in life may lower risk for dementia later in life, independent of cerebrovascular disease.

Primary funding source: The Cooper Institute; University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and American Heart Association.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alzheimer Disease / etiology
  • Alzheimer Disease / prevention & control
  • Cardiovascular Physiological Phenomena*
  • Dementia / etiology
  • Dementia / prevention & control*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Kaplan-Meier Estimate
  • Male
  • Middle Aged / physiology*
  • Physical Fitness*
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors