Older adults who have mild cognitive impairment or could be at risk for it may want to head for the weight room. A study by researchers in Australia has found that progressive strength training is helpful in boosting brain power.

The study tested 100 adults aged 55 and older who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. According to the Mayo Clinic, MCI is “an intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more-serious decline of dementia.” MCI affects memory, thinking and judgment beyond normal levels of age-related decline. The condition may increase a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

In this study, the researchers assigned participants to one of four groups: resistance exercise and computer-based cognitive training; resistance exercise and computer placebo featuring nature videos; cognitive training and stretching; and placebo exercise and mind training. Those in the exercise interventions met two times per week for 6 months and trained at up to 80% of peak strength. The Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Scale—Cognitive Subscale was used to measure cognitive abilities.

Results showed that progressive resistance training was linked with significant improvement in global cognition compared with other protocols. The improvements were present 12 months after the intervention was completed.

Researchers are interested in learning more about the mechanisms behind the cognitive improvements. “The next step now is to determine if the increases in muscle strength are also related to increases in brain size that we saw,” observed senior author Maria Fiatarone Singh, MD, professor at the University of Sydney.

“In addition, we want to find the underlying messenger that links muscle strength, brain growth, and cognitive performance, and determine the optimal way to prescribe exercise to maximize these effects.”

This study appeared in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2016; doi: 10.1111/jgs.14542).

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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