Strength Training and Brain Health: Prevent Alzheimer’s & Dementia

Strength Training and Brain Health: Prevent Alzheimer's & Dementia

Strength Training and Brain Health: Prevent Alzheimer's & Dementia

Image of female member training on the leg press with a trainer coaching her

The scariest thing to many older adults is the possibility of mentally slipping.

Forgetting your family, forgetting how to do simple tasks, and forgetting who you are might be one of the most terrifying side effects of aging. But it doesn’t have to be.

Although there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to preventing mental diseases like Alzeimers or dementia, there is one thing scientifically shown to decrease the chances of cognitive decline…

Strength Training.

Maintain Cognitive Function

When you look into the future you want to see a life filled with family, hobbies, adventure, and the ability to do what you want. Think of this as a high quality life.

Part of having a high quality of life is possessing the mental capacity necessary to keep up with that vision of the future. For this we need to have a healthy memory, awareness, and ability to shift focus within seconds.

In terms of health, strength training is usually discussed as an effective treatment for building bone density, controlling blood sugar, and improving the cardiovascular system as a whole.

However, research over the past few years is showing that strength training is also an effective method for improving cognitive function, even in those who show signs of decline.

Cognitive decline is often linked with Alzeheimer’s disease and dementia.
“Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease that is caused by complex brain changes following cell damage. It leads to dementia symptoms that gradually worsen over time. The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is trouble remembering new information.” (Alz.org)

“Dementia describes a group of symptoms associated with a decline in memory, reasoning or other thinking skills. Many different types of dementia exist, and many conditions cause it. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60-80% of dementia cases.” (Alz.org)

Neither are considered a normal part of aging, which allows for preventative action to be taken.

Improving Existing Cognitive Decline

Strength training is proven to help prevent cognitive issues, as well as improve cognition in those who already are experiencing decline.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have performed a few studies related to this. Each study included women only. The 2010 study lasted one year with the participants split into three groups:

  • strength training once per week
  • twice per week
  • or balance activities and light resistance movements (the control group) twice per week

The strength training group trained intensely, typically fatiguing to the point of “muscle success” in about six to eight repetitions.

A couple of cognitive tests were performed before and after the year of training,
Including:

  • The Stroop Test – a timed test seeing how quickly the participant can read the names of colors when font colors don’t match the name. This measures selective attention, cognitive flexibility, and processing speed.
  • Verbal Digit Span Test – a test requesting the subjects to repeat sequences of numbers that were told to them, providing an assessment of memory.
  • Trail Marker Tests – a series of tests that provide an assessment of several cognitive skills, including the speed at which a person can switch from one focused task to another.

At the end of the study, cognitive performance declined slightly in the control group, but
improved by 11 to 13% in the strength training groups.

Despite being an average of 70 years old, the women who performed strength training became mentally sharper over the 12-month period.

In addition, peak muscle power, the key attribute allowing seniors to perform challenging daily tasks, increased by 13% in the twice-weekly strength group.

Another study featured a similar experiment but featured an older group of women who
had mild cognitive impairment (risk factors for dementia). This study lasted six months and also had three groups:

  • twice-weekly strength training group
  • twice- weekly aerobic exercise group
  • control group that performed balance and stretching movements

The strength group improved in their Stroop Test scores, memory, and functional changes were noticed in three brain areas (via MRIs).

The effectiveness of strength training on the mind is not limited to women only. A 2007
study at the Federal University of San Paolo found two and three strength workouts per
week led to similar improvements in men who averaged 68 years old.

The men in this study also experienced less anxiety, depression, confusion, and fatigue at the end of this study.

Image of a female member being coached by a trainer on the triceps machine

Researchers in Australia tested the theory of resistance training having the ability to boost brain power. 68 women and 32 men between the ages of 55 and 86, all with mild cognitive impairment were observed.

They were randomly assigned to two groups. The first group did weight training twice a week for six months, lifting 80% of the maximum amount they could. The second group did stretching exercises.

“All participants were given cognitive tests at the beginning and end of the study and 12 months after they finished the study. The group that did the weight training scored significantly higher at the end of the study than at the beginning and retained that gain at 12 months. The gain in test scores was also greatest for those who had the greatest gains in strength. The scores of the group who performed stretching exercises declined somewhat.”

It's not too late to strive towards improving mental health. With strength training it only takes 20 minutes, twice a week to give you or your loved ones a better chance at a high quality life.

Strength Training Improves Memory

Strength training is shown to be a holistic solution to improving brain function and cognition in general. Here are more studies:

One study done in 2017 looked at adults at least 55 years old, and had:

  • one group doing strength training
  • another group doing some computer version of brain training (puzzles, sudoku, etc.)
  • another group doing stretching, or something that hadn't been shown to improve brain function. (control group)

After six months, strength training by itself was the most effective intervention in all the major areas, including improvements in memory and improvements in Alzheimer's disease score- which predicts the risk for developing Alzheimer's.

You would think “brain training” would have been the winner, but strength training beat it.

In one study, adults in senior living facilities were evaluated on tasks of executive functioning before and after a month-long strengthening, non-aerobic exercise program.

“A total of 16 participants who engaged in such exercise showed significantly improved scores on Digits Backward and Stroop C tasks when compared to 16 participants who were on an exercise waiting list.”

Another interesting study found that cognitive decline is associated with a severe fear of falling: a common fear amongst many older adults.

What’s an easy solution to prevention of falling as well as cognitive decline?

Slow-motion strength training!

Image of a trainer coaching a female member at The Perfect Workout

Reduce Risk of Dementia

According to the CDC, there are things you can do to reduce risk of getting dementia, including:

  • Maintain a healthy blood pressure level.
    • Slow-motion strength training is proven to lower blood pressure and we’ve helped many clients, like John Abel, get off their blood pressure medication.
  • Manage cholesterol levels with exercise and, if needed, cholesterol medications.
  • Keep blood sugar within a healthy range.
  • Get to and maintain a healthy weight.
    • By adding lean muscle mass, your body naturally has the ability to burn more calories, making it easier to lose and maintain weight.
    • Read about some of our success stories here.
  • Reduce hazards in your environment that could lead to falls or head injury.
    • By getting your body stronger with strength training you also improve your balance and mobility, making falls less likely.
  • Exercise, including aerobic physical activity.
    • Did you know you can get all the cardiovascular benefits you need from a 20-minute strength training session? Learn More.
  • Get good quality sleep.
    • Strength training improves your ability to fall asleep quicker and quality of sleep
  • Keep your mind active and stimulated, with challenging tasks such as learning a new activity.

The solution is simple

Looking at the research above, strength training offers a unique ability to improve cognitive function in a number of ways, even when signs of decline exist. This benefit can be attained in as little as just one intense workout per week.

Considering that strength training requires minimal time, strengthens bones and muscles, improves cardiovascular health, and the ability to process, recall, and react to life’s demands, it’s hard to see why anyone wouldn’t want to participate.

  • Liu-Ambrose, T., Nagamatsu, L. S., Graf, P., Beattie, B. L., Ashe, M. C., & Handy, T.C. (2010). Resistance training and executive functions: a 12-month randomized controlled trial. Archives of internal medicine, 170(2), 170.
  • Nagamatsu, L. S., Handy, T. C., Hsu, C. L., Voss, M., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2012). Resistance training promotes cognitive and functional brain plasticity in seniors with probable mild cognitive impairment. Archives of internal medicine, 172(8), 666-668.
  • Cassilhas, R. C., Viana, V. A., Grassmann, V., Santos, R. T., Santos, R. F., Tufik, S. E. R. G. I. O., & Mello, M. T. (2007). The impact of resistance exercise on the cognitive function of the elderly. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 39(8), 1401.