Role of Cardiovascular Risk Factors on the Association Between Physical Activity and Brain Integrity Markers in Older Adults

Background and Objectives

Physical activity has been associated with a decreased risk for dementia, but the mechanisms underlying this association remain to be determined. Our objective was to assess whether cardiovascular risk factors mediate the association between physical activity and brain integrity markers in older adults.


At baseline, participants from the Age-Well study completed a physical activity questionnaire and underwent cardiovascular risk factors collection (systolic blood pressure, body mass index [BMI], current smoker status, and high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, total cholesterol, and insulin levels) and multimodal neuroimaging (structural MRI, diffusion MRI, FDG-PET, and florbetapir PET). Multiple regressions were conducted to assess the association among physical activity, cardiovascular risk factors, and neuroimaging. Mediation analyses were performed to test whether cardiovascular risk factors mediated the associations between physical activity and neuroimaging.


A total of 134 cognitively unimpaired older adults (≥65 years) were included. Higher physical activity was associated with higher gray matter (GM) volume (β = 0.174, p = 0.030) and cerebral glucose metabolism (β = 0.247, p = 0.019) but not with amyloid deposition or white matter integrity. Higher physical activity was associated with lower insulin level and BMI but not with the other cardiovascular risk factors. Lower insulin level and BMI were related to higher GM volume but not to cerebral glucose metabolism. When controlling for insulin level and BMI, the association between physical activity and cerebral glucose metabolism remained unchanged, while the association with GM volume was lost. When insulin level and BMI were entered in the same model, only BMI remained a significant predictor of GM volume. Mediation analyses confirmed that insulin level and BMI mediated the association between physical activity and GM volume. Analyses were replicated within Alzheimer disease–sensitive regions and results remained overall similar.


The association between physical activity and GM volume is mediated by changes in insulin level and BMI. In contrast, the association with cerebral glucose metabolism seems to be independent from cardiovascular risk factors. Older adults engaging in physical activity experience cardiovascular benefits through the maintenance of a lower BMI and insulin level, resulting in greater structural brain integrity. This study has implications for understanding how physical activity affects brain health and may help in developing strategies to prevent or delay age-related decline.

Trial Registration Information

EudraCT: 2016-002,441-36; IDRCB: 2016-A01767-44; Identifier: NCT02977819.

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