Study Shows Link Between Lifetime of Physical Activity, Brain Function at an Older Age

Cognitive performance was higher if a person maintained physical activity throughout their lifetime.

Regular leisure time physical activity is associated with better cognition later in life, according to a paper published in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. Participants who were cumulatively physical active across all ages had better brain function in their later life, the investigators found.

“Together, these results suggest that the initiation and maintenance of physical activity across adulthood may be more important than the timing….or the frequency of physical activity at a specific period,” the study authors said in the press release.

There is an established link between physical activity and dementia, cognitive decline, and reduced mental acuity in later life. Further, studies have linked cardiovascular and mental health with a worse risk of cognitive decline. Although the investigators understood that physical activity can reduce these risks, the data are limited on the timing, frequency, or durability of leisure time physical activity with a person’s cognitive function in later life.

Investigators sought to understand the possible benefits of physical activity during particularly sensitive periods in life and its link to later life brain function. Investigators included 1417 patients from a 1946 British birth cohort study (53% women), measuring each participant’s level of physical activity levels at various ages: 36, 43, 53, between 60-64, and 69 years of age.

The team categorized level of physical activity at each age as inactive (no leisure time dedicated to physical activity), moderately active (physical activity 1 to 4 times/month), and most active (physical activity 5 or more times/month). Then their scores were averaged across all ages—0 to 5 of age, the latter being active at every age.

The team then measured the cognitive function of participants aged 69 years using the ACE-111. Participants were measured for attention, orientation, verbal fluency, memory, language, visuospatial function, verbal memory, and processing speed.

Investigators found a link between older life cognition and their lifetime leisure activity. The results suggest that “being physically active at any time in adulthood, even if participating as little as once per month, is linked with higher cognition,” the study authors noted the press release.

Participants who were physically active at every age had better later life cognitive performance, scoring higher on verbal memory and processing speed. Additionally, childhood cognition, socioeconomic status, and education can contribute to the link between later life cognitive performance and cumulative physical activity.

The study is observational and cannot confirm that physical activity at every age causes better brain function in later life. Additionally, all participants were White, had a disproportionately high attrition rate, and there were not data on exercise intensity, duration, or adherence.

“Our findings support guidelines to recommend participation in any physical activity across adulthood and provide evidence that encouraging inactive adults to be more active at any time, and encouraging already active adults to maintain activity, could confer benefits on later life cognition,” the study authors said in the press release.


BMJ. Any regular physical activity at any age linked to better brain function in later life. News Release. February 21, 2023. Accessed on February 22, 2023.

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