Poor fitness in teenagers increases the risk of epilepsy later in life

Young men who are in poor physical condition have a 79 percent higher risk of developing epilepsy later in life, compared with their peers who are in better physical shape. This was the result of a study by the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, where researchers used the national disease register and test results from military conscription in order to compare the occurrence of epilepsy in individuals in good or poor physical shape respectively.

Followed for 40 years

The study, where just over 1.1 million Swedish men were followed for up to 40 years, shows that the increased risk remains even in the presence of other risk factors, such as hereditary factors, previous brain injuries and social economic conditions.

“Our conclusion is that physical fitness affects the risk for epilepsy later in life in two ways. Being in good physical shape at an early age can strengthen the mechanisms that protect our brain over the long term, and people who exercise in their youth have a tendency to remain in good physical shape as adults, which also reduces the risk. Our results can be interpreted such that the former is the most important factor, but it is likely a combination of both,” says Professor Elinor Ben-Menachem at the Sahlgrenska Academy.

Confirmed in previous studies

The study is the first to compare physical fitness with the risk of epilepsy in people, but the conclusions by the Gothenburg researchers have been confirmed previously in studies of animals.

“We know that physical exercise both increases the number of newly formed nerve cells in the adult brain and strengthens several mental and physiological functions so that the brain develops better resistance to injury and illnesses,” says Dr. Jenny Nyberg, researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy, who led the study together with Elior Ben-Menachem.

“Being physically fit thereby reduces the risk of neurological disorders. More research is needed in order to fully understand the exact connection between physical exercise and the occurrence of epilepsy, but our hope is that eventually we can develop methods that use exercise as both a treatment and a form of prevention for certain risk groups,” says Jenny Nyberg.

The study in question includes data from all Swedish men who were called up for military service between 1968 and 2005. During this time, a total of 6796 men were diagnosed with epilepsy.

The article Cardiovascular fitness and risk of epilepsy: A Swedish prospective cohort study was published on September 4 in the American Academy of Neurology´s journal Neurology.

Epilepsy is a neurological disease of the brain whose symptoms include sudden spasms and seizures that can be debilitating and life-threatening. Epilepsy threatens people of all ages, and in Sweden there are about 60,000 people who suffer from epilepsy.

There results of the military conscription study where Swedish men were required to undergo tests when being called up for military service constitutes a unique set of research material for studies about how physical fitness in adolescence can affect the risk of developing various diseases later in life.

Jenny Nyberg, research at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg
[email protected]

Elinor Ben-Menachem, professor at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg and neurologist at Sahlgrenska University Hospital
[email protected]


BY: Krister Svahn
+46 31 786 38 69