Exercise and Cognitive Function in Old Age

exercise and cognitive function in old age

Senior adults in a group exercise class

A decline in cognitive function is pretty much evident during old age. This is a normal occurrence when we grow old. Sometimes, dementia related diseases set in such as Alzheimer’s disease. Good thing, several studies found that being physically active until old age is a good way to prevent decline in cognitive function.

Physical Activity and the White Matter

One such study co-authored by University of Illinois researcher, Agnieszka Burzynska, studied the effects of physical activity to the white matter structure of the brain. The white matter of the brain contains fiber-like networks that connect different parts of the brain.

The study followed 88 healthy senior adults aged 60 to 78 years. They were instructed to wear accelerometers for a week to keep a record of their physical activities and the time they spent in a sedentary position. These adults have low cardiovascular fitness but have to get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise every week.  Only 75 hours is recommended if vigorous exercise is performed.

The results showed that participants who performed the recommended amount of exercise showed lesser lesions in the white matter of their brain. This implies that being physically active until old age can prevent deterioration in brain function. It is therefore important that older adults prevent a sedentary lifestyle to maintain a healthy mind and body.

Supporting Study

Another study that showed similar results was co-authored by Louis Bherer, Kirk Erickson and Teresa Liu-Ambrose. The study was funded by the Canadian research chair program, in collaboration with Concordia University’s Perform Center and the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Psychology.

This study, however, tackles physical activity versus physical exercise. According to the study’s conclusion, moderate physical exercise can have significant effects on cognitive functions, which includes executive function, memory and attention. The positive effect can probably be attributed to the reversal of modifiable risk factors brought about by sedentary lifestyle and old age.

Further Studies Needed

Although the studies already established that physical activity and exercise can help improve cognitive function, more research is still needed to determine how physical activity impacts brain function. The studies are looking into a more detailed study on the difference of the effects of daily physical activities versus physical exercises which are more controlled.

Another aspect that needs more research is the type of exercise and their respective effects on cognitive function. Factors such as duration and frequency of exercise (aerobic, resistance, and combination) still need to be determined by conducting further studies.


There are various aspects of physical exercise and cognitive function relationship that needs to be explored. However, one thing is for sure, keeping an active lifestyle is recommended until senior adulthood. Being physically fit and active prevents decline in cognitive function, keeps the vascular integrity of the brain healthy and can even prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia from setting in. Age is, therefore, never an issue when staying fit and active in the gym. People of every age and race is encourage to engage in sports and other physical activities as long as they are capable of doing it.


Photo credit: jinxmcc on Flickr

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