Long-term changes in time spent walking and subsequent cognitive and structural brain changes in older adults

Neurobiol Aging. 2017 Sep:57:153-161. doi: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2017.05.023. Epub 2017 Jun 6.


Previous studies have shown that more active older adults have better cognition and brain health based on a variety of structural neuroimaging measures. Nevertheless, the effects of maintaining physical activity (PA) over an extended period of time on future changes in older adults' cognition and brain structure are unknown. Participants were 141 initially well-functioning community-dwelling older adults (aged 70-79 years at baseline; 60% female; 42% black) studied over a 13-year period. PA (self-reported time spent walking) was assessed annually from years 1 to 10. Magnetic resonance imaging with diffusion tensor was performed at years 10 and 13. Time spent walking decreased on average by 8.4% annually from year 1 to year 10. Independent of initial time spent walking, demographics, and APOE e4 status, better maintenance of time spent walking over the decade predicted less reduction in hippocampal volume (p = 0.03), smaller increases in global gray matter mean diffusivity and white matter axial diffusivity (p < 0.01), and maintenance of general cognitive performance (p < 0.01). Maintenance of cognitive performance was associated with smaller increases in white matter axial diffusivity (p < 0.01). PA at baseline and at year 10, as well as changes in PA over a 5-year period, was less predictive of future changes in brain structure and cognition. Thus, how PA levels change over longer periods of aging may be an important contributor to cognitive and neural protection.

Keywords: Cognition; Hippocampus; Neuroimaging; Physical activity; Walking.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / genetics
  • Aging / pathology*
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Apolipoprotein E4 / metabolism
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Diffusion Tensor Imaging
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuroimaging
  • Time Factors
  • Walking / psychology*


  • Apolipoprotein E4