Men who are physically fit as teenagers have a lower risk for epilepsy and seizures later in life, according new research from Sweden. The findings illustrate another long-term benefit of regular exercise and were published today in the journal Neurology.

"There are a host of ways exercise has been shown to benefit the brain and reduce the risk of brain diseases," said study author Dr. Elinor Ben-Menachem, a neurologist with the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. "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."

Over 200,000 new cases of epilepsy are diagnosed each year, with men being slightly more likely to suffer from the seizure-laden condition then women. Although it can strike at any point in life, most epilepsy occurs under the age of 2, due to complications during pregnancy and infancy, or over the age of 65.

The possible explanations for why epilepsy happens more during the twilight years are multifaceted, but cardiovascular health is a contributing factor. Conditions featuring impaired blood flow in the brain — high blood pressure, stroke, head trauma — are intimately linked with epilepsy later in life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “reducing or treating risk factors such as physical inactivity” may lower this possibility.

To see if good exercise habits during adolescence are tied with better outcomes during old age, Ben-Menachem tracked the health of 1.2 million Swedish men for an average of 25 years.

In Sweden, all men are mandatorily enlisted for military service at the age of 18 and are given a cardiovascular fitness test when they show up for boot camp. This provided the perfect starting point for a long-term comparison of heart health and epilepsy.

Men who had a high level of fitness at 18 years old were 79 percent less likely to develop epilepsy compared to those with low or medium fitness levels. This relationship held up even after considering genetic factors and a prior history of traumatic brain injury, stroke, or diabetes. Overall 6,700 of the 1.2 million volunteers were diagnosed for epilepsy in this longitudinal study.

"Exercise may affect epilepsy risk in two ways,” concluded Ben-Menachem. “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."

Source: Nyberg J, Åberg MAI, Torén K, Nilsson M, Ben-Menachem E, Kuhn HG. Cardiovascular fitness and later risk of epilepsy. Neurology. 2013.