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Their study found that regular physical activity could provide some protection against the brain disease, which causes repeated seizures over time.
"There are a host of ways exercise has been shown to benefit the brain and reduce the risk of brain diseases," the study's author, Dr. Elinor Ben-Menachem, from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, said in an American Academy of Neurology news release. "This is the first study in humans to show that exercise may also reduce the risk of epilepsy, which can be disabling and life-threatening."
"Exercise may affect epilepsy risk in two ways," she said. "It may protect the brain and create stronger brain reserve, or it may simply be that people who are fit early in life tend to also be fit later in life, which in turn affects disease risk."
The study involved 1.17 million Swedish men. The researchers used cycling to test the men's cardiovascular fitness at their mandatory military enlistment at the age of 18, and then evaluated them for epilepsy during a 25-year follow-up period. The researchers found that nearly 6,800 men were diagnosed with the brain disorder.
The study, published online Sept. 4 in the journal Neurology, showed, however, that the men who had a high fitness level were 79 percent less likely to be diagnosed with epilepsy than those who had a low fitness level. The men who were most fit also were 36 percent less likely to develop the condition than men who had a medium fitness level.
The researchers pointed out that only 0.48 percent of the men with high fitness levels developed epilepsy, compared to 0.62 percent of the men with medium levels of fitness and 1.09 percent of the men with low levels of fitness.
The study's authors said their findings were only slightly lessened by taking the men's genetics into account as well as any history of traumatic brain injury, stroke or diabetes. The study, however, did not prove a cause-and-effect link between level of fitness and risk of epilepsy.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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