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01.12.2018 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2018 Open Access

BMC Psychiatry 1/2018

Physical fitness and dementia risk in the very old: a study of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1921

BMC Psychiatry > Ausgabe 1/2018
Ruth A. Sibbett, Tom C. Russ, Mike Allerhand, Ian J. Deary, John M. Starr
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Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (https://​doi.​org/​10.​1186/​s12888-018-1851-3) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.



Previous studies have demonstrated that individual measures of fitness – such as reduced pulmonary function, slow walking speed and weak handgrip – are associated with an increased risk of dementia. Only a minority of participants included in these studies were aged over 80. The aim of this study was therefore to investigate the association between physical fitness and dementia in the oldest old.


Subjects (n = 488) were enrolled in the Lothian Birth Cohort 1921 and aged 79 at baseline. Dementia cases arising after enrolment were determined using data from death certificates, electronic patient records and clinical reviews. Fitness measures included grip strength, forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) and walking speed over 6 m, measured at 79 years. Dementia risk associated with each fitness variable was initially determined by logistic regression analysis, followed by Cox regression analysis, where death was considered as a competing risk. APOE ε4 status, age, sex, height, childhood IQ, smoking, history of cardiovascular or cerebrovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes were included as additional variables. Cumulative incidence graphs were calculated using Aalen-Johansen Estimator.


Although initial results indicated that greater FEV1 was associated with an increased risk of dementia (OR (odds ratio per unit increase) 1.93, p = 0.03, n = 416), taking into account the competing risk of mortality, none of the fitness measures were found to be associated with dementia; FEV1 (HR (hazard ratio per unit increase) 1.30, p = 0.37, n = 416), grip strength (HR 0.98, p = 0.35, n = 416), walking speed (HR 0.99, p = 0.90, n = 416). The presence of an APOE ɛ4 allele was however an important predictor for dementia (HR 2.85, p < 0.001, n = 416). Cumulative incidence graphs supported these findings, with an increased risk of dementia for APOE ɛ4 carriers compared with non-carriers. While increased FEV1 was associated with reduced risk of death, there was no reduction in risk for dementia.


In contrast to previous studies, this study found that lower fitness beyond age 79 was not a risk factor for subsequent dementia. This finding is not explained by those with poorer physical fitness, who would have been more likely to develop dementia, having died before onset of dementia symptoms.
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