It is remarkable that neurons are able to survive and function for a century or more in many persons that age successfully. A better understanding of the molecular signaling mechanisms that permit such cell survival and synaptic plasticity may therefore lead to the development of new preventative and therapeutic strategies for age-related neurodegenerative disorders. We all know that overeating and lack of exercise are risk factors for many different age-related diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers. Our recent studies have shown that dietary restriction (reduced calorie intake) can increase the resistance of neurons in the brain to dysfunction and death in experimental models of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and stroke. The mechanism underlying the beneficial effects of dietary restriction involves stimulation of the expression of 'stress proteins' and neurotrophic factors. The neurotrophic factors induced by dietary restriction may protect neurons by inducing the production of proteins that suppress oxyradical production, stabilize cellular calcium homeostasis and inhibit apoptotic biochemical cascades. Interestingly, dietary restriction also increases numbers of newly-generated neural cells in the adult brain suggesting that this dietary manipulation can increase the brain's capacity for plasticity and self-repair. Work in other laboratories suggests that physical and intellectual activity can similarly increase neurotrophic factor production and neurogenesis. Collectively, the available data suggest the that dietary restriction, and physical and mental activity, may reduce both the incidence and severity of neurodegenerative disorders in humans. A better understanding of the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying these effects of diet and behavior on the brain is also leading to novel therapeutic agents that mimick the beneficial effects of dietary restriction and exercise.