Research shows a clear association between physical activity levels and cognitive performance, according to the Alzheimer’s Society Against Dementia.

Numerous studies indicate that of all the lifestyle changes examined in this regard, regular physical activity appears to rank among the most effective choices to reduce the risk of developing dementia. A recent study showed that participants who were most physically fit were 33% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who were the least fit. And those whose fitness was below the most physically fit were, based on their level of fitness, 26% to 13% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s than the least fit.

The new study was to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting held in early April in Seattle. Led by Edward Zamrini, MD, of the Washington VA Medical Center in Washington, DC, researchers analyzed data on nearly 650,000 veterans in the Veterans Health Administration database, whose average age was 61 and who were tracked for about nine years. All participants were divided into groups from the least fit to the most fit.

“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,” Zamrini said. “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.

“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,” he said. “We hope to develop a simple scale that can be individualized so people can see the benefits that even incremental improvements in fitness can deliver.”

“This is more independent evidence that good heart health is the best path toward good brain health,” said Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, the director of the Mount Sinai Center for Cognitive Health in New York City. Gandy, who was not involved in the study, explained that both maintaining normal blood pressure and blood flow to the brain are essential in heart health and brain health.

“We have learned through other data, however, that overaggressive blood pressure control in the elderly is not always a good thing, so the situation is very complex, and each study must be scrutinized individually,” Gandy said.

Before undertaking a fitness or physical activity program, it’s important to consult your primary care provider to determine safe levels of activity that can be beneficial and not detrimental to any current conditions or health concerns.