How Does Exercise Reduce the Rate of Age-Associated Cognitive Decline? A Review of Potential Mechanisms

J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;55(1):1-18. doi: 10.3233/JAD-160665.


The rate of age-associated cognitive decline varies considerably between individuals. It is important, both on a societal and individual level, to investigate factors that underlie these differences in order to identify those which might realistically slow cognitive decline. Physical activity is one such factor with substantial support in the literature. Regular exercise can positively influence cognitive ability, reduce the rate of cognitive aging, and even reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other dementias. However, while there is substantial evidence in the extant literature for the effect of exercise on cognition, the processes that mediate this relationship are less clear. This review examines cardiovascular health, production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin sensitivity, stress, and inflammation as potential pathways, via which exercise may maintain or improve cognitive functioning, and may be particularly pertinent in the context of the aging brain. A greater understanding of these mechanisms and their potential relationships with exercise and cognition will be invaluable in providing biomarkers for investigating the efficacy of differing exercise regimes on cognitive outcomes.

Keywords: BDNF; cognition; cognitive aging; exercise; inflammation; insulin; stress; vascular.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Cognitive Aging / physiology*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / physiopathology*
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / prevention & control*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Humans