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How to Prevent Cognitive Decline & Improve Psychological Well-Being

Written by: Sarah Johnson, MSPAS PA-C

Recent studies reveal the best way to prevent cognitive decline and improve psychological wellbeing is with physical exercise.

  • Physical exercise: a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive and has a final or intermediate objective in improvement or maintenance of one or more components of fitness.

Cognitive Benefits

  1. Increased amounts of grey matter & reduced damage to grey matter in the frontal and hippocampal regions of the brain.

    1. Grey matter: allows for high processing and mental development.

      1. Low amounts of grey matter are associated with neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.

  2. Increase levels of neurotrophic factors (BDNF).

    1. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF): promotes survival of existing neurons (brain cells) and promotes growth and differentiation of new neurons.

      1. BDNF is associated with cognitive improvement & intelligence. It has also proved to be beneficial in the alleviation of depression and anxiety.

  3. Increased blood flow to brain.

    1. Our vascular system brings “food” to our brain. Increased blood flow allows the brain to feed on more oxygen and glucose. A properly fed brain leads to wakefulness, improved concentration and refined memory recall.

Psychological Benefits

  1. Increase in dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.

    1. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in movement and memory but most importantly, this is our “feel good” neurotransmitter. It allows us to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation.

    2. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that controls our sympathetic nervous system. It is involved in alertness, arousal and attention.

    3. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter involved in mood, emotions, appetite and digestion. This is often referred to as our “happy” hormone!

  2. Increase in peripheral BDNF.

    1. As stated above, BDNF helps alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms. An increase in BDNF leads to an increase in our excitatory neurons. Specifically, it increases glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter that is involved in mood regulation.

*PSA: Would you believe that exercise has the same, if not more benefit on your psychological well-being than many drugs prescribed for depression and anxiety? Exercise has proven to have the same mechanism and further benefits than antidepressants and anti-anxiolytics.

What kind of physical exercise is best?

Studies have shown that aerobic exercises convey the greatest benefits to our brain. Aerobic exercise uses oxygen to regenerate energy (ATP) during exercise. Chronic aerobic exercise, or consistent aerobic exercise over several months, at 40-60% of one's VO2 max had major benefits on cognitive function and psychological well-being. Whereas acute aerobic exercise, or a single bout of aerobic exercise at 40-60% of one's VO2 max, had little effect on cognitive function but still had psychological benefits.


Neurodegenerative diseases are devastating for not only the person suffering, but the family of those who suffer. Unfortunately, medicine has no cure for these diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, but we do have a way to PREVENT these diseases. Furthermore, depression is the most common mental health diagnosis worldwide with anxiety following close behind. The research is clear. Exercise is medicine for our brain and many other systems within our body. Don’t wait, start now!


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