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Aerobic exercise effects on cognitive and neural plasticity in older adults
  1. K I Erickson1,
  2. A F Kramer2
  1. 1
    University of Pittsburgh, Department of Psychology, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
  2. 2
    Beckman Institute and Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, USA
  1. Professor Arthur F Kramer, University of Illinois Beckman Institute 405 N. Matthews Ave, Urbana, Illinois 61821, USA; akramer{at}

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Older adults frequently experience cognitive deficits accompanied by deterioration of brain tissue and function in a number of cortical and subcortical regions. Because of this common finding and the increasing ageing population in many countries throughout the world, there is an increasing interest in assessing the possibility that partaking in or changing certain lifestyles could prevent or reverse cognitive and neural decay in older adults. In this review we critically evaluate and summarise the cross-sectional and longitudinal studies that assess the impact of aerobic exercise and fitness on cognitive performance, brain volume, and brain function in older adults with and without dementia. We argue that 6 months of moderate levels of aerobic activity are sufficient to produce significant improvements in cognitive function with the most dramatic effects occurring on measures of executive control. These improvements are accompanied by altered brain activity measures and increases in prefrontal and temporal grey matter volume that translate into a more efficient and effective neural system.

Brain deterioration and cognitive decline are considered common characteristics of ageing. However, it is clear that not everyone experiences senescence at the same rate or to the same degree. Individual differences in the quality of cognitive and brain function in old age suggest that deterioration and decay are neither ubiquitous nor inevitable characteristics of ageing. This begs the following question: what are the factors that explain some of the individual differences in old age, allowing some people to retain cognitive and brain function, while pushing others into a trajectory of decline and decay?

In addition to determining individual difference factors, recent interventions demonstrate that cognitive and brain deterioration is not unalterable and that the older adult brain retains some plasticity that can be taken advantage of in order to reverse deterioration and decay that may already be manifest. In …

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  • Competing interests: None.