Leisure-time physical activity associates with cognitive decline: The Northern Manhattan Study

Neurology. 2016 May 17;86(20):1897-903. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000002582. Epub 2016 Mar 23.


Objective: Because leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) is protective against incident dementia, we hypothesized that LTPA is protective against decline in domain-specific cognitive performance.

Methods: As part of the Northern Manhattan Study, LTPA was ascertained at enrollment using a validated in-person questionnaire. We assessed cognition in participants in the Northern Manhattan Study MRI substudy using a standard neuropsychological examination (NPE) (n = 1,228), and a repeat examination was performed 5 years later (n = 876). LTPA was summarized as the maximum intensity of any activity performed, classified as none to light intensity (physical inactivity) (90%) vs moderate to heavy intensity (10%). The NPE was subcategorized using standardized z scores over validated domains: processing speed, semantic memory, episodic memory, and executive function. We used multivariable linear regression models to examine the association of LTPA with initial and change in cognitive performance. Analyses were adjusted for sociodemographics, cardiovascular disease risk factors, and MRI findings (white matter hyperintensity volume, silent brain infarcts, cerebral volume).

Results: No/low levels of LTPA were associated with worse executive function, semantic memory, and processing speed scores on the first NPE. The associations were slightly attenuated and no longer significant after adjusting for vascular risk factors. Cognitively unimpaired participants reporting no/low LTPA vs moderate/high levels declined more over time in processing speed (β = -0.231 ± 0.112, p = 0.040) and episodic memory (β = -0.223 ± 0.117, p = 0.057) adjusting for sociodemographic and vascular risk factors.

Conclusions: A low level of LTPA is independently associated with greater decline in cognitive performance over time across domains.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / diagnostic imaging
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / epidemiology*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / physiopathology
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Leisure Activities*
  • Linear Models
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • New York City / epidemiology
  • Prevalence
  • Prospective Studies