Weight training protects the ageing brain

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Thanks to Blake Alec Miranda from the Yassa Translational Neurobiology Laboratory at the University of California, Irvine for this article on resistance training and brain health.

I (Blake) live in Los Angeles where it seems like everyone and their grandmother is obsessed with fighting fat and building muscle. It’s a stereotype that we SoCal lifers embrace, but don’t take too seriously.

Yet, I didn’t realize how ubiquitous exercising had become until my actual grandmother messaged me over Instagram a few months ago asking about a brand of running shoes. Rather than question how my 75-year-old grandma made an Instagram (and why she still hasn’t followed me back, for that matter), it got me thinking about the effect exercise can have on the lives of our oldest adults.

Speaking with Dr Sarah McKay, it was almost serendipitous that we got to talking about the Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART) study that examined resistance training and its relationship to cognitive decline.

Clinical trial suggest lifting weights protects against dementia

The Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART) is a clinical trial conducted by Maria Fiatarone Singh and collaborators at the University of New South Wales and the University of Adelaide. Singh recruited 100 adults aged 55-86 from the surrounding community diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI)

People with MCI suffer from significant memory impairment but they’re still able to live independently. It is often considered a precursor to dementia as neurodegeneration progresses with advanced age, and many clinical trials are interested in slowing this decline at the MCI stage.

Singh and her team assigned their recruits to one of four training groups:

  1. computer cognitive training + stretching exercises
  2. computer cognitive training + resistance training
  3. watched videos/quizzes + resistance training
  4. watched videos/quizzes + stretching exercises

For six months the over-55s come into the lab-gym for closely supervised weight training two or three days a week.

The over-55s cognitive outcomes were tracked using the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale – Cognitive scale (ADAS-Cog) and multiple measures of working memory. A follow up at 18 months was conducted after study completion.

After six months, those who lifted weights with sham cognitive training (group 3) showed improvement in their ADAS-Cog.

Dr Yorgi Mavros one of the researchers involved says,

What we found in this follow up study is that the improvement in cognition function was related to their muscle strength gains.

The stronger people became, the greater the benefit for their brain.

Contrary to expected, group 2 who received full doses of resistance training + cognitive training performed worse than those lifting weights alone.

Singh suggests he combined intervention, which was both mentally and physically challenging, could have resulted in excessive stress, less engagement in-home or community-based activities, or other changes that inhibited rather than promoted neural plasticity and cognitive benefits.

Should everyone with mild cognitive decline lift weights?

So, should we all encourage our tech-savvy grandmothers to take up weight training?

It depends.

SMART makes a strong case for resistance training, but it’s not the end of the story.

Cardiovascular exercise alone has also shown similar promise in protecting against cognitive decline, and the degree to which physical fitness interacts with genetics, sex, and other risk factors for dementia is still unclear.

Singh says,

The next step now is to determine if the increases in muscle strength are also related to increases in brain size that we saw.

However, the researchers make a compelling case for introducing resistance training into our lives, and we can all benefit from a healthy lifestyle that balances cardio, weights and diet.

The more we can get people doing resistance training like weight lifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier ageing population.

says Mavros,

The key however is to make sure you are doing it frequently, at least twice a week, and at a high intensity so that you are maximising your strength gains. This will give you the maximum benefit for your brain.

As part of Sarah’s ABC Catalyst show on healthy brain ageing, she met Neils who took part in the SMART trial. Neils joined the trial a few years ago and reversed his mild cognitive decline by lifting weights!  He hasn’t looked back and still lifts weekly.

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  1. Janet Rayner Thorn on November 22, 2019 at 5:39 am

    I’m 72 yrs female, exercise everyday and always have. After long distance running and a cycling accident that injured a knee I took to Cross fit and aqua fit. I do approx 4 Cross fit classes a week, a few aqua fit and long forest walks. I’m amazed at my energy, upper body strength improvement, improved core and back alignment, improved mood AND Cognitive functioning.

  2. Sarah Olson on November 22, 2019 at 11:11 am

    Fascinating! I will share this with the seniors I work with, thanks!

  3. Peter Birkett on November 24, 2019 at 3:33 am

    Would highly recommend that anyone over 50 should read the book The Barbell Prescription by Dr Jonathan Sullivan. Also visit website greysteel.org
    Much benefit for older people to lift weights!

  4. Shayne Gadenne on November 24, 2019 at 4:04 am

    Hi, I am 64 and joined a gym a year ago. I have never been interested in gyms but seeing my own mother aging and losing strength I decided to not end up so weak. I go five days a week to do 1 hour sessions with a coach. I now deadlift 75 kilos. Bench press and do squats. I actually love it. I have not had a fall in the time I have been there. I have already had two knee replacements 8 years ago. I also take my intellectual disabled daughter and she loves it.

    • Iris Whitelock on December 9, 2019 at 1:44 am

      Shayne, that’s inspiring. I have also been motivated by seeing my mother’s physical decline, followed by dementia, and the effect it had on my father who became physically isolated and lost mobility and strength while he cared for her until she died a couple of years ago. He is now 92, housebound and weak, but with all his mental faculties and basically a positive outlook on life: “content to watch the world go by”, he says. I had also observed my mother not achieving her potential as a musician because of “nerves” and lack of support to express herself and to engage with community. All these aspects have had a major influence on me to address these issues in my personal life, as well as starting a new career/calling in my sixties, because the mental/emotional/spiritual are vital to my wellbeing. For the first time in my life, I feel I am “on track” to achieve my potential, and this is hugely satisfying. And I want the physical stamina to make the most of it!

  5. Lu Ram on December 9, 2019 at 4:20 am

    Yes very good writing! Absolutely yes an older person should lift weights (not heavy) to get the blood pumping to the brain. You do not have to do it every day at least twice a week. It will keep you sharp! Thank you very much for sharing!

  6. Jewel on December 20, 2019 at 7:31 am

    I have been following you for quite some time and reap much in benefits intellectually and trusted guidance and information.

    Thank you for your contribution to the health and well-being of your followers.


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