Active Aging: Exercise and Social Life Shield Brain Health

Summary: Researchers uncovered the protective effects of physical and social activities on brain health in older adults.

Analyzing data from a 12-year longitudinal study, researchers focused on the entorhinal cortex, vital for learning and memory and vulnerable in Alzheimer’s disease. They found that increased physical and social activity slowed the thinning of the entorhinal cortex and, consequently, memory decline over seven years.

This research underscores the importance of an active lifestyle in preserving brain health and cognitive function in old age.

Key Facts:

  1. Physical and social activities slow down the thinning of the entorhinal cortex, a key brain region for memory.
  2. The study links active lifestyles with reduced memory decline in older adults.
  3. High initial memory performance correlates with slower cognitive decline, supporting the concept of ‘cognitive reserve’.

Source: University of Zurich

Physical exercise is associated with a variety of positive health aspects. Numerous studies have shown that regular physical activity has a preventive effect on cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and obesity.

But how do various leisure activities – physical, social and cognitive – affect brain health in old age?

A team of researchers from the University Research Priority Program Dynamics of Healthy Aging and from the Healthy Longevity Center of the University of Zurich (UZH) decided to investigate this question.

This shows an older couple running.
The entorhinal cortex, approximately 3.5 millimeters thick, is part of the cerebral cortex in the inner part of the temporal lobe and plays a key role in learning and memory. Credit: Neuroscience News

To this end, they examined data from a comprehensive longitudinal study on brain development and behavior in old age. The longitudinal study was set in motion 12 years ago by Lutz Jäncke, meanwhile professor emeritus at UZH, who continues to supervise the project together with co-lead Susan Mérillat.

The aim of the current research was to investigate the relationships between the thickness of the entorhinal cortex, memory performance and leisure activities in cognitively healthy adults over the age of 65, for a period of seven years.

Exercise and social activity slow down neurodegeneration

The entorhinal cortex, approximately 3.5 millimeters thick, is part of the cerebral cortex in the inner part of the temporal lobe and plays a key role in learning and memory. It is also one of the brain regions that is affected early on in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Our findings show that in people who were more physically and socially active at the beginning of the study, the thickness of their entorhinal cortex decreased less over the seven-year period,” says neuropsychologist Jäncke.

The researchers also found that the thickness of the entorhinal cortex is closely linked to memory performance. The less the thickness of this brain structure decreased over the course of the study, the less memory performance was reduced.

“Physical exercise and an active social life with friends and family are therefore important for brain health and can prevent neurodegeneration in later life,” says Jäncke.

Brain can be trained like a muscle

It was also shown that higher memory performance at the beginning of the study was associated with a lower decline in memory performance over the course of the study.

“These findings support the idea that we have a ‘cognitive reserve’, and that the brain can be trained throughout our lives like a muscle to counteract age-related decline,” says Isabel Hotz, one of the two first authors alongside Pascal Deschwanden.

In other words, it pays to be physically, mentally and socially active throughout our lives, including in later life.

Fortunately, many older people in Switzerland already seem to be living by this credo: according to the Swiss Health Survey conducted by the Swiss Federal Statistical Office in 2022, around three quarters of people over 65 get the recommended amount of physical exercise in their daily lives.

About this aging and neurology research news

Author: Kurt Bodenmueller
Source: University of Zurich
Contact: Kurt Bodenmueller – University of Zurich
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Associations between white matter hyperintensities, lacunes, entorhinal cortex thickness, declarative memory and leisure activity in cognitively healthy older adults: A 7-year study” by Lutz Jäncke et al. NeuroImage


Associations between white matter hyperintensities, lacunes, entorhinal cortex thickness, declarative memory and leisure activity in cognitively healthy older adults: A 7-year study


Cerebral small vessel disease (cSVD) is a growing epidemic that affects brain health and cognition. Therefore, a more profound understanding of the interplay between cSVD, brain atrophy, and cognition in healthy aging is of great importance.

In this study, we examined the association between white matter hyperintensities (WMH) volume, number of lacunes, entorhinal cortex (EC) thickness, and declarative memory in cognitively healthy older adults over a seven-year period, controlling for possible confounding factors.

Because there is no cure for cSVD to date, the neuroprotective potential of an active lifestyle has been suggested. Supporting evidence, however, is scarce. Therefore, a second objective of this study is to examine the relationship between leisure activities, cSVD, EC thickness, and declarative memory.


We used a longitudinal dataset, which consisted of five measurement time points of structural MRI and psychometric cognitive ability and survey data, collected from a sample of healthy older adults (baseline N = 231, age range: 64–87 years, age M = 70.8 years), to investigate associations between cSVD MRI markers, EC thickness and verbal and figural memory performance.

Further, we computed physical, social, and cognitive leisure activity scores from survey-based assessments and examined their associations with brain structure and declarative memory. To provide more accurate estimates of the trajectories and cross-domain correlations, we applied latent growth curve models controlling for potential confounders.


Less age-related thinning of the right (β = 0.92, p<.05) and left EC (β = 0.82, p<.05) was related to less declarative memory decline; and a thicker EC at baseline predicted less declarative memory loss (β = 0.54, p<.05). Higher baseline levels of physical (β = 0.24, p<.05), and social leisure activity (β = 0.27, p<.01) predicted less thinning of right EC. No relation was found between WMH or lacunes and declarative memory or between leisure activity and declarative memory.

Higher education was initially related to more physical activity (β = 0.16, p<.05) and better declarative memory (β = 0.23, p<.001), which, however, declined steeper in participants with higher education (β = –.35, p<.05). Obese participants were less physically (β = –.18, p<.01) and socially active (β = –.13, p<.05) and had thinner left EC (β = –.14, p<.05) at baseline.

Antihypertensive medication use (β = –.26, p<.05), and light-to-moderate alcohol consumption (β = –.40, p<.001) were associated with a smaller increase in the number of lacunes whereas a larger increase in the number of lacunes was observed in current smokers (β = 0.30, p<.05).


Our results suggest complex relationships between cSVD MRI markers (total WMH, number of lacunes, right and left EC thickness), declarative memory, and confounding factors such as antihypertensive medication, obesity, and leisure activity.

Thus, leisure activities and having good cognitive reserve counteracting this neurodegeneration. Several confounding factors seem to contribute to the extent or progression/decline of cSVD, which needs further investigation in the future.

Since there is still no cure for cSVD, modifiable confounding factors should be studied more intensively in the future to maintain or promote brain health and thus cognitive abilities in older adults.

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