Low fitness in youth associated with higher risk of cardiometabolic disease in middle age: A study

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An extended follow-up study conducted at the University of Jyväskylä and now published in Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports showed that low cardiorespiratory fitness in adolescence is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease in middle age. The study provides real-life evidence of the wide-ranging consequences of young people’s declining physical condition.

The 45-year study combined fitness test data of the same participants from adolescence (12–19 years) with information on diabetes, hypertension and coronary heart disease, as well as self-measurements of waist circumference aged 37 to 44 years and/or or from 57 to 64 years. Associations of cardiorespiratory, muscle, and speed and agility with health conditions were examined separately and by combining diseases and risk factors into a cardiometabolic risk score to indicate severity of conditions.

The results show that low cardiorespiratory fitness in adolescence is associated with a greater burden of cardiometabolic conditions by age 57 to 64 years. Furthermore, in women, low cardiorespiratory fitness in adolescence increases the risk of hypertension in middle age, and in men, low speed agility is associated with increased waist circumference in late middle age.

“Other common risk factors for cardiometabolic disease, such as age and body mass index, were controlled for in the analyses, so we can conclude that cardiorespiratory fitness is an independent early indicator of cardiometabolic health later in life,” says Dr. . student Pertu Laakso.

The findings add to previous evidence on predominantly male participants from, for example, a study of Swedish army recruitment register data.

“There are publicly discussed concerns about how the declining fitness of young people will affect the future workforce,” says Laakso. “This study gives us some scientific evidence to support this concern.”

“Unfortunately, there is little sign that this concern has been alleviated, given that the level of cardiorespiratory fitness among today’s adolescents has been shown to be significantly lower than that of the adolescents studied in this study.”

Laakso emphasizes the need to overcome all barriers to youth physical activity, whether that means investing in an environment that promotes physical activity or human resources for organized youth sport.

“The economic cost of these investments will be far less than the associated health care costs or disability caused by cardiometabolic disease.”

Finally, Laakso wants to emphasize that all is not lost, even though a person’s physical fitness in adolescence would not be ideal: “Evidence shows that exercise at all ages reduces the risk of cardiometabolic disease.”

More info:
Perttu TT Laakso et al, The association of adolescent fitness with cardiometabolic disease in late adulthood: a 45-year longitudinal study, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports (2023). DOI: 10.1111/sms.14529

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