Exercise Boosts Connectivity Between Neurons in Older Adults, Helps Maintain Cognitive Health

Maintaining some level of physical activity as you age can help with strength, bone density, immune health, and warding off many chronic diseases. It’s also good for your mental health, as a mood booster. A new study finds that exercise helps maintain proteins that promote connectivity between neurons, as well, providing a protective benefit against cognitive decline.

Researchers from the University of California San Francisco looked at the brains of seniors who had varying levels of physical activity to see how that impacted this nerve connectivity. Their findings, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, show that seniors who were more active had higher levels of proteins that help neurons exchange information with each other. While similar results had been found in mouse models, researchers say this is a first for human studies.


Dr. Kaitlin Casaletto, lead author and assistant professor of neurology, explains, “Our work is the first that uses human data to show that synaptic protein regulation is related to physical activity and may drive the beneficial cognitive outcomes we see.”

The results came from participants in the Memory and Aging Project at Rush University in Chicago. The seniors who took part had their physical activity tracked and agreed to donate their brains when they died. Researchers found that even active seniors with accumulations of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s displayed this enhanced neuron connectivity.

Benefits weren’t limited to the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory. They also expanded to areas dealing with cognitive function.


Dr. William Honer, senior author and professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, says, “It may be that physical activity exerts a global sustaining effect, supporting and stimulating healthy function of proteins that facilitate synaptic transmission throughout the brain.”

This builds on previous work by Casaletto, which found that synaptic integrity appears to help disrupt the relationship between amyloid and tau – proteins associated with Alzheimer’s – and tau and neurodegeneration.

She says that both these studies show that physical activity and its resulting synaptic health may be a protective tool against Alzheimer’s disease.

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