Physical activity and brain plasticity in late adulthood: a conceptual and comprehensive review

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Kirk I. Erickson *
Destiny L. Miller
Andrea M. Weinstein
Stephanie L. Akl
Sarah Banducci
(*) Corresponding Author:
Kirk I. Erickson |


A growing body of evidence from neuroscience, epidemiology, and kinesiology suggests that physical activity is effective as both a prevention and treatment for cognitive problems throughout the lifespan. Given the expected increase in the proportion of older adults in most countries over the next 40 years, physical activity could be a low-cost and relatively accessible method for maintaining cognitive function throughout later life. Despite the emerging recognition of physical activity as a powerful method to enhance brain health, there is continued confusion from both the public and scientific communities about what the extant research has discovered about the potential for physical activity to improve neurocognitive health and which questions remain unanswered. In this review, we outline four overarching themes that provide a conceptual structure for understanding the questions that have been asked and have been addressed, as well as those that have yet to be answered. These themes are descriptive, mechanistic, applied, and moderating questions. We conclude from our review that descriptive questions have been the first and most thoroughly studied, but we have much yet to learn about the underlying mechanisms, application, and moderating factors that explain how and to what extent physical activity improves brain health.

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