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The link between physical activity and brain integrity

As we get older, it is thought physical activity helps prevent pathological aging and dementia.

Animal models suggest that physical activity promotes growth of new neurons (through the expression of growth factors), cell survival, and synaptic plasticity, while human studies propose a more indirect method where physical activity is reducing cardiovascular risk factors.

It has been shown that cardiovascular risk factors are known to both negatively affect brain structure and function, as well as increase the risk of developing dementia.

A recent study with 134 cognitively unimpaired older adults (minimum age of 65) was done to try to correlate the association of physical activity and brain integrity through the use of multimodal neuroimaging. 1

The researchers found that the amount of global grey matter was mediated by cardiovascular risk factors—specifically insulin and BMI score, in addition they found that the relationship between physical activity and glucose metabolism in the brain was independent of cardiovascular risk factors. 1

This is important, as obesity and insulin dysfunction may develop with aging and both are risk factors for not only cardiovascular problems but brain health issues as well (such as atrophy, cognitive impairment, and development of dementia).

They can negatively impact brain health due to both being sources of inflammation and oxidative stress (which can increase the risk of dementia).

The independent relationship between physical activity and glucose metabolism in the brain is due in part to the high nutrient and energy demands of the metabolic pathways.

Therefore an active lifestyle and maintenance of a lower BMI could help keep both insulin metabolism and inflammation in check, promoting good brain health.


(1) Felisatti F; Gonneaud J; Palix C; et al. (2022) ‘Role of Cardiovascular Risk Factors on the Association Between Physical Activity and Brain Integrity Markers in Older Adults’ Neurology DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000200270

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