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The association between physical activity and cognitive function is partly explained by better sleep quality

Physical activity, cognitive function and sleep quality


  • Boris Cheval University of Geneva
  • Silvio Maltagliati
  • Stefan Sieber
  • Stéphane Cullati
  • Liye Zou
  • Andreas Ihle
  • Arthur Kramer
  • Qian Yu
  • David Sander
  • Matthieu Boisgontier



physical activity, sleep quality, cognitive function, aging, mediation


Background: Physical activity has been associated with better cognitive functions and sleep quality. Yet, whether the effect of physical activity on cognitive functions could be explained by better sleep quality in adults who are 50 year of age or older is unclear.

Objective: To investigate whether sleep quality mediates the association between physical activity and cognitive functions in adults 50 year of age or older.

Methods: 97,767 community-dwelling 50 years-of-age or older European adults were included in the study. Physical activity and sleep quality were self-reported, and indicators of cognitive function (i.e., immediate recall, delayed recall, and verbal fluency) were assessed using objective tests. All measures were collected six times between 2004 and 2017. The mediation was tested using multilevel mediation analyses.

Results: Results showed that physical activity was associated with better sleep quality, which was associated in turn with better performance in all three indicators of cognitive function, thereby demonstrating an indirect effect of physical activity on cognitive function through sleep quality. However, the magnitude of this indirect effect was small in comparison to the magnitude of the direct effect of physical activity on cognitive function. Specifically, sleep quality explained 3.8%, 6.5%, and 9.0% of the total association of physical activity with verbal fluency, immediate recall, and delayed recall, respectively.

Conclusions: These findings suggest that self-reported sleep quality partly mediates the association between physical activity and cognitive function, but that the effect of self-reported physical activity on cognitive function is largely independent from self-reported sleep quality. Future studies using devices-based measures of physical activity and sleep quality are needed.


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