BACKGROUND: US studies suggest that leptin, a fat-derived hormone, may be protective against the development of dementia. OBJECTIVE: To investigate the complex relationship between leptin levels and cognitive decline in elderly Italians. METHODS: We studied circulating fasting leptin levels in 809 elderly adults free from dementia who participated in the prospective Italian population-based InCHIANTI study between 1998 and 2009 (mean follow-up of 8.0 years). Global cognitive decline was defined as a reduction of >/=5 points on the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE). Trail-Making Tests A and B were also incorporated, with cognitive decline defined as discontinued testing or the worst 10% of change from baseline. We also investigated whether any association could be explained by midlife weight and whether cognitive decline was associated with changing leptin levels. RESULTS: The multivariate adjusted relative risk ([RR]; 95% confidence interval [CI]) of cognitive decline on the MMSE was 0.84 (95% CI 0.73-0.97) in relation to baseline sex-standardized log-leptin levels. High leptin levels showed a non-significant trend toward a reduced risk of decline on the Trail-Making Tests A (RR = 0.85, 95% CI 0.71-1.02) and B (RR = 0.90, 0.79-1.02). Adjusting for midlife weight or change in weight did not alter the pattern of results, and cognitive decline was not associated with changing leptin levels. CONCLUSIONS: High leptin levels were independently associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline in elderly Italians.