Mild cognitive impairment? Start lifting weights

Lifting weights

A recent study published in the Journal of American Geriatrics has found that those with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) could benefit from lifting weights. Those with MCI have a slight but noticeable decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills –  and have a higher chance of developing dementia. Around 5 to 10 percent of those aged over 65 in Britain have MCI, and of that group, around 15% will develop dementia.

The study measured the effect that different exercise programmes had on the brain of 100 people with MCI, aged between 55 and 86. Those who participated in a twice-weekly weight training session over the course of six months showed significantly improved brain function. During the sessions, the participants were made to work at a minimum of 80% of their peak strength.

It is thought that more than 135 million people will suffer from dementia by 2050. The researchers believe that their study will have implications on the type and intensity of exercise recommended for the elderly.

About the study

The Study of Mental and Resistance Training (SMART) trial was a randomised, double-blind trial that involved 100 community-dwelling adults with MCI, aged between 55 and 86. They were divided into four groups doing either:

  • Resistance exercise and computerised cognitive training;
  • Resistance exercise and a placebo computerised training (watching nature videos);
  • Brain  training and a placebo exercise program (seated stretching/calisthenics); or
  • Placebo physical exercise and placebo cognitive training.

Those participants doing resistance exercise prescribed weight lifting sessions twice week for six months, working to at least 80 per cent of their peak strength. As they got stronger, the amount of weight they lifted on each machine was increased to maintain the intensity at 80 per cent of their peak strength.

Participants’ global cognition improved significantly after the resistance training, as measured by tests that included the Alzheimer’s disease Assessment Scale-Cognitive scale. The cognitive training and placebo activities did not have the same benefit. The benefits persisted even twelve months after the supervised exercise sessions ended.


The lead author of the study Yorgi Mavros who is a research associate at the University of Sydney in Australia said:

“What we found 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.”

“The more we can get people doing resistance training like weightlifting, the more likely we are to have a healthier ageing population. 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 the maximum benefit for your brain.”

The team’s findings have reinforced research conducted in a SMART trial published earlier this year, in which MRI scans indicated an increase in the size of areas of the brain for those who participated in a weight-training programme. The changes to the brain were linked to the cognitive improvements after weight lifting.

Co-author and geriatrician at the University of Sydney Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh said the next step was to determine if the increases in muscle strength were also related to increases in brain size that they had seen. Additionally, the team are anxious to find the underlying messenger that connects brain growth, muscle strength and cognitive performance, and to determine the optimal way to prescribe exercise to maximise the positive effects.

A separate study conducted by researchers at Newcastle University and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that as we age, tension on the brain’s outermost layer – the cerebral cortex – appears to decrease. Effectively, the brain gets slacker in much the same way as skin. One of the researchers involved in the study, Yujiang Wang, said:

“In Alzheimer’s disease, this effect is observed at an earlier age and is more pronounced. The next step will be to see if there is a way to use the changes in folding as an early indicator of disease.”

Preparing for the future

Not everyone with MCI will get dementia – around 15% will go on to develop some form of the disease. However, it is not yet possible to determine who will be affected or the speed of mental decline (which is different for everyone). If you have MCI, it makes sense to put your affairs in order now while you still have mental capacity. This includes:

  • Making a Lasting Power of Attorney that nominates someone to make decisions for you in the future, should you be unable to make them for yourself.
  • Making a Will determining what will happen to your assets when you die – you cannot make a Will if you go on to lose mental capacity.

It is very important to take action now while your symptoms are still mild. If you do lose mental capacity, your partner, family members or friends will have to apply to the Court for a Deputyship Order to be able to act on your behalf. This is an expensive and long winded process. Note that if you have made a Will and you lose mental capacity, this does not mean your Executors can act for you – this is a common misconception. Your Will only applies after your death – you need a Lasting Power of Attorney if you want to give someone the power to act while you are alive.

Speak to us

We would be pleased to speak to you about making a Will and Lasting Power of Attorney, without any obligation. April King Legal’s headquarters are in Nottingham and we have locations across the UK. We would be happy to see you at your local office or visit you in your home if this is more convenient.

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