Lifelong brain health is a lifelong challenge: from evolutionary principles to empirical evidence

Ageing Res Rev. 2015 Mar:20:37-45. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2014.12.011. Epub 2015 Jan 7.


Although the human brain is exceptional in size and information processing capabilities, it is similar to other mammals with regard to the factors that promote its optimal performance. Three such factors are the challenges of physical exercise, food deprivation/fasting, and social/intellectual engagement. Because it evolved, in part, for success in seeking and acquiring food, the brain functions best when the individual is hungry and physically active, as typified by the hungry lion stalking and chasing its prey. Indeed, studies of animal models and human subjects demonstrate robust beneficial effects of regular exercise and intermittent energy restriction/fasting on cognitive function and mood, particularly in the contexts of aging and associated neurodegenerative disorders. Unfortunately, the agricultural revolution and the invention of effort-sparing technologies have resulted in a dramatic reduction or elimination of vigorous exercise and fasting, leaving only intellectual challenges to bolster brain function. In addition to disengaging beneficial adaptive responses in the brain, sedentary overindulgent lifestyles promote obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, all of which may increase the risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. It is therefore important to embrace the reality of the requirements for exercise, intermittent fasting and critical thinking for optimal brain health throughout life, and to recognize the dire consequences for our aging population of failing to implement such brain-healthy lifestyles.

Keywords: Alzheimer's disease; Exercise; Intermittent fasting; Ketone bodies; Parkinson's disease; Synaptic plasticity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging* / physiology
  • Aging* / psychology
  • Attitude to Health
  • Biological Evolution
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Exercise* / physiology
  • Exercise* / psychology
  • Fasting* / physiology
  • Fasting* / psychology
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Life Style
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / etiology
  • Neurodegenerative Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Neuronal Plasticity