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Researchers at Monash University have revealed that a focus on physical activity in childhood can lead to improved cognitive outcomes in middle age and reduce the risk of dementia in later years.

Led by Dr Jamie Tait and Associate Professor Michele Callisaya from the National Centre for Healthy Ageing, an organisation that is part of both Monash University and Peninsula Health, the study, conducted over more than 30 years, compared childhood levels of fitness against cognitive performance in later life.

In particular, the subjects’ cardio-respiratory and muscular performance, as well as the physical measurement of waist-to-hip ratio, was used as a baseline from which to compare results in cognitive performance later in life, with factors such as processing speed and attention measured in computer-based testing.

Ultimately, the research, which also featured contributions from researchers at the University of Tasmania, found that those with better cardiorespiratory and muscular performance and lower waist to hip ratios during childhood, generally performed better in middle age when undertaking cognitive testing.

Discussing the study, Associate Professor Callisaya said because it is known cognitive performance can start to decline throughout a person’s middle years, the study was important because it shows how factors present early in life can serve to prevent dementia later on.

“Developing strategies that improve low fitness and decrease obesity levels in childhood are important because it could contribute to improvements in cognitive performance in midlife,” Associate Professor Callisaya said.

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

The study, which commenced in 1985, focused on the physical make-up of more than 1,200 people between the ages of 7 and 15 years, later measuring cognitive developments in the same cohort throughout the 2017-19 period (when the subjects were aged between 39 and 50 years).

Titled, “Longitudinal associations of childhood fitness and obesity profiles with midlife cognitive function: An Australian cohort study,” the article was published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport and is available to read online here.