Pumping Iron to Prevent Dementia?


Resistance training could be an important part of reversing memory decline in elderly women with mild memory problems, according to a new study published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia in Canada studied 86 women between the ages of 70 and 80 who had mild cognitive impairment, a condition where people have problems with memory or other brain functions that are noticeable but not severe enough to interfere with daily life. Predictably, this group of people is at increased risk of developing dementia. The women were divided into groups that underwent resistance training, aerobic exercise, or balance and tone training twice a week for six months.

The resistance training group had significant improvements in performance on a common test of executive brain functioning called the Stroop Test. They also had improvements in a separate test of associative memory, which refers to the ability of one thought or memory to trigger another. For example, to most humans, the color green means go. Impairment in associative memory is common in early Alzheimer's dementia.

Using functional MRI studies among the groups, the researchers demonstrate increased blood flow to key areas of the brain that was associated with the improved performance on the cognitive tests. However, unlike in prior studies, there was no benefit of the aerobic training group on cognitive testing, though their cardiovascular performance was improved.

This is the first study that demonstrates the benefits of resistance exercises in those who already suffer from cognitive impairment. And while this is a small study that provides preliminary evidence of benefit, study author Teresa Liu-Ambrose says, "Exercise is attractive as a prevention strategy for dementia as it is universally accessible and cost-effective."

Worldwide, one case of dementia is detected every seven seconds, and with the aging of baby boomers, those numbers are on the rise.

So is it time to start recommending strength training to the elderly, especially those with cognitive impairment to try and ward off dementia?

Zaven S. Khachaturian, president of the Campaign to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease by 2020, finds the research promising, but thinks not quite yet. He says more research is needed in larger studies to confirm these findings.

Dr. Richard Caselli, professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic, agrees.

"When advising patients, I do inform them that physical activity, exercise, and good fitness generally is healthful," he says. "We have known that for years as regards to cardiovascular health, so even if we turn out to be wrong about possibly preventing or slowing dementia onset, it is still good medical advice."