Exercise as a Hedge against Age Related Cognitive Decline

Updated: Nov 11, 2019

The Role of Training and Exercise in BDNF production in mature adults

As it stands, there is no single test that can be performed to measure healthy ageing rates in adults. Instead, a combination of markers are measured and when viewed as a whole, represent how cells are ageing and this is expanded to the organism.

The tests are split into two groups. Those measuring healthy cellular activity and those measuring cellular decay

healthy cellular activity:



telomere length

or cellular decay:

DNA damage

stress hormone levels

oxidative stress


accelerated chromosome deterioration

In this post, I am going to focus on the first one, BDNF. I will try to explain the role of BDNF in the human organism as simply and concisely as possible. Its a huge topic and a single post cannot possibly cover it all and you wouldn’t want and 11,000 word post either!

What is BDNF?

BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is a protein produced inside what is known as the endoplasmic reticulum. It is responsible for a whole host of functions. Mainly it encourages the growth of new neurons and synapses as well as the supporting the survival of existing neurons by protecting against premature cell death. I have heard it described as Miracle Gro for the brain. It is analogous to fertiliser on plants. It fertilises brain cells and facilitates their growth and function as well as boosting the growth of new cells.

BDNF protein builds and maintains the pathways that allow signals from important neurotransmitters that you may have heard of, like seratonin and dopamine, to travel.

Although neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are important in helping the brain function because they carry the signals of neurons, the protein BDNF build and maintain the brain circuits which allow the signals to travel. It also binds to receptors at the synapses, which improves signal strength between neurons.

What does this mean for mature athletes?

BDNF levels have been shown to decrease as we age. This means that cognitive functions such as memory are impacted. Lower levels of BDNF have been shown to be associate with Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Depression, Epilepsy and decrease in Hippocampal volume (meaning decreases in cognitive functioning).

As an example, in 2011, as Stanford University Study took 144 pilots who were suffering from BDNF polymorphism and put them through the flight simulator over a 3 year period. The pilots with demonstrable BDNF decreases year on year showed double the rate of performance declination when compared to pilots without BDNF polymorphism being present.

What can I do about this?


Studies show that after just 2 weeks of exercise, BDNF secretion drastically increased. In addition to these findings, it was further demonstrated that athletes who exercised in some form daily increased levels to 150% of baseline compared with athletes who exercised on alternating days (an improvement of 124% of baseline). These difference only lasted 28 days, after which production levelled out in both groups. The study also showed that BDNF production returned to lower baseline after only 14 days of not exercising.

I have included citations from where I have extracted this (very concise) overview below. If you have any questions or want to know more about how exercise positively mitigates the effects of ageing, feel free to email me coach@strengthbiastraining.com or DM me on instagram: strengthbiastraining




Erickson KI, Prakash RS, Voss MW, Chaddock L, Heo S, McLaren M, Pence BD, Martin SA, Vieira VJ, Woods JA, McAuley E, Kramer AF (April 2010). "Brain-derived neurotrophic factor is associated with age-related decline in hippocampal volume". The Journal of Neuroscience. 30 (15): 5368–75. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.6251-09.2010. PMC 3069644. PMID 20392958