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Be Fit, Be Sharp, Be Well: The Case for Exercise as a Treatment for Cognitive Impairment in Late-life Depression

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 June 2021

Vonetta M. Dotson*
Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA Gerontology Institute, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
Andrew M. Gradone
Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
Hannah R. Bogoian
Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
Lex R. Minto
Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
Zinat Taiwo
Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
Zachary N. Salling
Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA
*Correspondence and reprint requests to: Vonetta M. Dotson, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Georgia State University, P.O. Box 5010, Atlanta, GA30302-5010, USA. Phone: +1 (404) 413-6298. Fax: +1 (404) 413-6207. Email:



To lay out the argument that exercise impacts neurobiological targets common to both mood and cognitive functioning, and thus more research should be conducted on its use as an alternative or adjunctive treatment for cognitive impairment in late-life depression (LLD).


This narrative review summarizes the literature on cognitive impairment in LLD, describes the structural and functional brain changes and neurochemical changes that are linked to both cognitive impairment and mood disruption, and explains how exercise targets these same neurobiological changes and can thus provide an alternative or adjunctive treatment for cognitive impairment in LLD.


Cognitive impairment is common in LLD and predicts recurrence of depression, poor response to antidepressant treatment, and overall disability. Traditional depression treatment with medication, psychotherapy, or both, is not effective in fully reversing cognitive impairment for most depressed older adults. Physical exercise is an ideal treatment candidate based on evidence that it 1) is an effective treatment for depression, 2) enhances cognitive functioning in normal aging and in other patient populations, and 3) targets many of the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie mood and cognitive functioning. Results of the limited existing clinical trials of exercise for cognitive impairment in depression are mixed but overall support this contention.


Although limited, existing evidence suggests exercise may be a viable alternative or adjunctive treatment to address cognitive impairment in LLD, and thus more research in this area is warranted. Moving forward, additional research is needed in large, diverse samples to translate the growing research findings into clinical practice.

Critical Review
Copyright © INS. Published by Cambridge University Press, 2021

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