A group that performed a previous study showing that strength and weight training could postpone the onset of dementia in elderly women has done a follow up study that shows the even after the onset of dementia, strength training can then roll back the clock somewhat and improve the cognitive functioning in elderly women who already have some signs of neurological deficit. It’s great to see a rapid follow up study that adds even better news. It is also amazing that something so straightforward can actually heal people’s brains!
The study group has no idea how or why this works although they have theories.It is also important to note that (unfortunately) this study provides no information about whether the same technique works for men. Or indeed whether strength training has any cognitive effect for those who are younger.
Let’s take a deeper look to see what we can learn. First off it is clear that the benefit comes from strength training alone. The study controlled for aerobic exercise and no exercise and it is clear that the benefit comes just from strength training. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, an assistant professor in the department of physical therapy at the University of British Columbia said, “among people who don’t yet have dementia but are already at a high risk in terms of mild memory and executive function impairment, our study shows that strength training, but not aerobics training, does have benefits for cognition.”
The study also performed MRIs on some of the participants and found an increase in brain activity in three parts of the cerebral cortex associated with cognitive behavior.
The study does not provide any information about whether these benefits accrue long term, so there are still lots of caveats. And if you are worried about onset of dementia in any way, look at the NIH guidelines. But here is the really interesting thing. Since the strength training is good for you anyway, and since there is nothing yet to show that it doesn’t work for other groups like men and younger people, why wouldn’t you do it? I know that I am going to add some additional weight training to my workout a couple of times a week. Let’s see if it makes me any smarter…