The disabling and life-threatening brain condition was the subject of Dr. Elinor Ben-Menachem’s study. The PhD MD says the research suggests that men who exercise vigorously as young adults may reduce their risk of developing epilepsy later in life.

Epilepsy is a brain disease that causes repeated seizures.

Dr. Ben-Menachem published her research in the September 4, 2013, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Exercise has been shown to have positive effects on the brain and other organs, including reducing the risk of various brain diseases. Dr. Ben-Menachem says her study is the first in humans to show that exercise may also reduce the risk of epilepsy.

The study was very large captive group – young Swedish men who enlisted for mandatory military service at age 18. More than a million men undertook cycle tests that measured cardiovascular fitness. Over a period of 25 years or more, the participants were assessed for epilepsy in follow-up tests. 6,796 men were diagnosed with epilepsy.

Dr. Ben-Menachem’s study showed that the men with high levels of fitness “were 79 percent less likely to develop epilepsy than those with low fitness levels and 36 percent less likely to develop epilepsy than those with medium fitness levels.”

This table shows some results from the study:

Total Men # developed epilepsy % developed epilepsy
high fitness 496,973 2,381 0.48%
medium fitness 629,876 3,913 0.62%
low fitness 46,230 502 1.09%

The results were lessened only slightly after considering genetic factors and a prior history of traumatic brain injury, stroke or diabetes.

“Exercise may affect epilepsy risk in two ways. 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,” Dr. Ben-Menachem said.

Dr. Ben-Menachem’s study was supported by Märtha Lundqvists Stiftelse, Wilhelm and Martina Lundgrens Stiftelse, the Sten A Olsson Foundation for Research and Culture, the Swedish Research Council for Worklife and Social Science (FAS), the Swedish government under the LUA/ALF agreement for biomedical research and the Swedish Medical Research Council.

American Academy of Neurology http://www.aan.com