Promoting brain health through exercise and diet in older adults: a physiological perspective

J Physiol. 2016 Aug 15;594(16):4485-98. doi: 10.1113/JP271270. Epub 2016 Jan 6.


The rise in incidence of age-related cognitive impairment is a global health concern. Ageing is associated with a number of changes in the brain that, collectively, contribute to the declines in cognitive function observed in older adults. Structurally, the ageing brain atrophies as white and grey matter volumes decrease. Oxidative stress and inflammation promote endothelial dysfunction thereby hampering cerebral perfusion and thus delivery of energy substrates and nutrients. Further, the development of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles contributes to neuronal loss. Of interest, there are substantial inter-individual differences in the degree to which these physical and functional changes impact upon cognitive function as we grow older. This review describes how engaging in physical activity and cognitive activities and adhering to a Mediterranean style diet promote 'brain health'. From a physiological perspective, we discuss the effects of these modifiable lifestyle behaviours on the brain, and how some recent human trials are beginning to show some promise as to the effectiveness of lifestyle behaviours in combating cognitive impairment. Moreover, we propose that these lifestyle behaviours, through numerous mechanisms, serve to increase brain, cerebrovascular and cognitive reserve, thereby preserving and enhancing cognitive function for longer.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Diet*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans