Influence of Physical Activity on Brain Aging and Cognition

The Role of Cognitive Reserve, Thresholds for Decline, Genetic Influence, and the Investment Hypothesis

Authored by: Maureen K. Kayes , Bradley D. Hatfield

Lifestyle Medicine

Print publication date:  March  2013
Online publication date:  March  2013

Print ISBN: 9781439845424
eBook ISBN: 9781315099248
Adobe ISBN:


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The purpose of this chapter is to highlight how physical activity (i.e., gross bodily movement) and exercise (i.e., engagement in purposeful physical activity to improve physiological capacity) improve cognitive function in the areas of thinking and memory. Just as physical activity benefits cardiovascular and musculoskeletal function, it also exerts remarkable effects on the brain resulting in the enhancement of cognitive function through the lifespan and the delay of cognitive decline with aging. Positive effects have been observed in the brains of animals and humans with benefits accruing in processing speed, working memory, learning, attention, executive and inhibitory control, as well as mental flexibility. Exercise has been shown to increase oxygen delivery to the brain and to expand blood vessels and mitochondria, resulting in improved metabolic capacity. Exercise also improves uptake of neurotransmitters and increases levels of neurotrophic factors, enabling more efficient brain communication, better maintenance and repair of neurons, and improved dendritic strength and connectivity. Evidence has even been provided in animal studies for the generation of new neurons in an area of the brain susceptible to deterioration with age, the hippocampal region that mediates the formation of new memories. All of these neurobiological effects contribute to a better working brain that is more efficient and can withstand insult from injury, stress, or aging, with greater integrity, ability to focus, networking between brain regions, and improved ability to adapt to change.

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