The world’s first study of the impact of childhood fitness and obesity on middle-aged cognition, tracked for more than 30 years by more than 1,200 people who were children in 1985, found that better performance on physical tests is linked to better cognition later in life and may protect against dementia in later years.

Importantly, these results are not influenced by academic ability and socioeconomic status during childhood, nor by smoking and alcohol consumption in middle life.

Led by Dr. Jamie Tait and Associate Professor Michele Callisaya of the National Center for Healthy Aging, based at Peninsula Health and Monash University in Melbourne, and researchers from the Childhood Determinants of Adult Health study at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research from the University of Tasmania, the landmark study is published today (TBC) in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

Children who build muscle strength, cardiorespiratory fitness and endurance through sport and activity are known to have better health outcomes later in life. Better adult fitness is also associated with better cognition and a reduced risk of dementia later in life.

By following more than 1,200 people from 1985, when they were aged 7-15, through 2017-2019, this is the first significant study to seek links between objectively measured fitness and obesity. in childhood with cognition in middle age, with the idea that early activity levels, physical fitness, and metabolic health may protect against dementia in our older years.

In 1985, 1244 participants aged 7 to 15 in the Australian Childhood Determinants of Adult Health study were assessed for their physical condition (cardio-respiratory, muscular power, muscular endurance) and their anthropometry (waist/hip ratio).

These participants were followed between 2017 and 2019 (39-50 years, average age 44 years) regarding their cognitive function using a series of computerized tests.

According to Associate Professor Callisaya, this is the first study demonstrating a relationship between phenotypic profiles of objectively measured fitness and measures of childhood obesity, with midlife cognition.

The researchers found that children with the highest levels of cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness and a lower average waist-to-hip ratio had higher midlife scores in tests of processing speed and attention, as well as in overall cognitive function.

Given that a decline in cognitive performance can begin as early as middle age, and lower 40s cognition has been associated with a greater likelihood of developing mild cognitive impairment and dementia at older ages, Associate Professor Callisaya says it’s important to identify lifelong factors that can protect against cognitive decline later in life.

“Developing strategies that improve low fitness and decrease obesity levels during childhood is important because it could contribute to improved cognitive performance in midlife,” she said.

“Importantly, the study also indicates that protective strategies against future cognitive decline may need to begin in early childhood, so that the brain can develop sufficient reserve against the development of conditions such as dementia in the older life.”

The 1985 Australian Schools Health and Fitness Survey was a nationally representative sample of 8498 Australian children aged 7-15. Participants were followed at three time points in 2004-06, 2009-11, and 2014-19 as part of the Childhood Determinants of Adult Health (CDAH) study, a prospective cohort study based on survey participants. The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Heart Foundation.

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