beth israel deaconess medical center a harvard medical school teaching hospital

To find a doctor, call 800-667-5356 or click below:

Find a Doctor

Request an Appointment

left banner
right banner
Smaller Larger

Physical Activity Found to Decrease Loss of Cognition and Development of Vascular Dementia

En Español (Spanish Version)

Dementia and cognitive decline are devastating health issues for seniors that can lead to decreased quality of life and long-term healthcare. Physical activity is known to provide many health benefits for the bones and heart. But more research is looking at its potential benefits for brain health.

Two recently published reports found that physical activity had some effect on cognitive ability and vascular dementia. One study done in Italy was published in Neurology . It showed that physical activity was associated with a lower risk of dementia but not Alzheimer's disease . The second study was a review of several smaller studies. It was published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews and suggested that physical activity can improve cognitive health.

About the Study

In the Italian prospective cohort study, 749 people aged 65 and older were tracked over four years. All participants were cognitively normal at the start of the study. Their baseline fitness levels were measured. At the end of four years there were 86 cases of dementia in the group, 54 were from Alzheimer’s disease. A review of the data suggested:

  • People with the highest fitness levels had significantly lower rates of developing vascular dementia.
  • Physical activity did not appear to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

In the Cochrane review, researchers reviewed 11 randomized trials that studied the effect of aerobic physical activity on cognition. The studies involved people over the age of 55 years old with no known cognitive decline. Eight of the 11 studies reported that aerobic exercise led to increased fitness and improvement in some aspects of cognition.

The Italian study is a review of information, but this type of study is not considered the most reliable because it cannot account for other elements that may affect the outcome. The Cochrane review used only randomized, controlled studies which are considered to be highly reliable. Combining several similar studies also improves the reliability of the information.

How Does This Affect You?

There are still many questions about cognitive function benefits from exercise. In these studies only certain aspects of cognition were improved, and only aerobic exercise was studied. An exercise program started at any age has been shown to have many health benefits. Talk to your doctor about starting an exercise program if you are currently not active. If you are currently active continue doing so.

If you suspect you or a loved one is exhibiting signs of dementia or cognitive decline talk to a physician. Early treatment is important to potentially slowing down these declines.




  • Angevaren M, Aufdemkampe G, Verhaar HJJ, et al. Physical activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews . 2008;3.
  • Ravaglia G, Forti P, Lucicesare A, et al. Physical activity and dementia risk in the elderly: findings from a prospective Italian study. Neurology . 2008 May 6;70(19 Pt 2):1786-1794.

Last reviewed August 2008 by Larissa J. Lucas, MD

All EBSCO Publishing proprietary, consumer health and medical information found on this site is accredited by URAC. URAC's Health Web Site Accreditation Program requires compliance with 53 rigorous standards of quality and accountability, verified by independent audits. To send comments or feedback to our Editorial Team regarding the content please email us at

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.

Search Your Health