Staying fit into middle age can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by up to a third, a study suggests.
Even small gains in heart and lung health can be hugely beneficial.
Analysis of 649,605 people with an average age of 61 found the most fit were 33 per cent less likely to develop the disease than the least fit.
Study author Dr Edward Zamrini, from Washington VA Medical Center, US, said it was 'exciting' and 'very promising' to see case rates decrease with increased fitness levels, as there are currently 'no adequate treatments' for Alzheimer's.
He said: 'One exciting finding of this study is that as people's fitness improved, their risk of Alzheimer's disease decreased-it was not an all-or-nothing proposition.
'So people can work toward making incremental changes and improvements in their physical fitness and hopefully that will be associated with a related decrease in their risk of Alzheimer's years later.'
He added: 'The idea that you can reduce your risk for Alzheimer's disease by simply increasing your activity is very promising, especially since there are no adequate treatments to prevent or stop the progression of the disease.
'We hope to develop a simple scale that can be individualised so people can see the benefits that even incremental improvements in fitness can deliver.'
Researchers examined participants' 'cardiorespiratory fitness', a measure of how well the body transports oxygen to the muscles, and how well they are able to absorb oxygen during exercise.
A limitation of the study was participants were mostly white men so results may not be generalisable to other populations.
The findings will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology's, the world's largest association of neurologists and neuroscience professionals, 74th Annual Meeting in Seattle.
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