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More reasons to watch your waistline and pick up the pace

Watching your weight and taking the time to exercise can be challenging this time of year, but two studies published last week in Neurology (the journal of the St. Paul-based American Academy of Neurology) underline yet again why you need to keep making the effort to stay in shape.

Keep your waist flat
In one of the Neurology studies, Swedish researchers found that middle-aged women who carry a lot of fat around their waist are more than twice as likely as their smaller-bellied peers to develop dementia after the age of 70.

That is, if they live that long. Other research has found an association between a bulging waistline and an increased risk of dying prematurely from heart disease, cancer and other chronic medical conditions.

The Swedish findings support those of a larger 2008 American study (involving men as well as women), which also linked large bellies to dementia late in life.

Interestingly, the Swedish study found no relationship between a high body mass index (BMI) and dementia. (Could this be more evidence that BMI is not all that useful as an indicator of an individual’s risk for disease?)

Working harder pays off
In the second Neurology study, New York researchers found that men who regularly engaged in moderate-to-heavy exercise (activities like running, playing tennis or swimming laps) were 63 percent less likely to have a stroke than their peers who were couch potatoes.

They also found — contrary to other, earlier studies, including one by the same researchers — that light exercise (such as walking or playing golf) offered no protection against stroke.

Although women were included in the study, exercise was not found to give them any protection against stroke. This finding was discouraging, for, as the authors of the study point out, women now make up about 70 percent of all hospital admissions for stroke (in large part because women live longer).

The study involved 3,298 northern Manhattanites (average age 69). They were followed for nine years.

The usual caveats
All the usual caveats apply to these studies, of course. Both have limitations. For example, participants in the exercise study self-reported their physical activity. Data from self-reports can be unreliable.

Furthermore, the risks I’ve just described in both studies are relative, not absolute. And they show an association between two factors, not a cause-and-effect relationship.

Still, turning down some of the eggnog offers and turning up the speed on the treadmill might be a good idea this holiday season.

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