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Why strength is critical to brain health.

by Galen Wetzell, DPT, OCS, CFMM


woman strength training



If you would like to see/hear the information in this article in video format, click on the link to watch on the Better With Age YouTube Channel.





Why Strength is Critical to Brain Health


The connection between physical strength and brain health often goes unnoticed, but emerging research underscores its significance. While it's widely known that physical activity benefits the body, its profound impact on the brain is equally compelling. In this article, we are going to look specifically at the relationship of one simple strength measurement and its relationship to risk for Alzheimer's and dementia: grip strength.


Enhanced Cognitive Function


Physical strength-training exercises, such as weightlifting or resistance training, are known to improve cognitive functions. These activities increase the release of growth factors, which help create new brain cells and improve synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity is the brain's ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience. This enhancement in brain flexibility can lead to better memory, sharper thinking, and overall improved cognitive function.


What does the research indicate?


A 2022 meta-analysis by Cui et al, looked to examine the relationship between grip strength and the risk for cognitive decline. If you have read my previous articles, you will recall that a meta-analysis involves searching the current body of published research, finding the highest quality studies, and trying to combine the data to extrapolate an overall effect or relationship. The authors of this study analyzed a total of 15 studies which included a total of 27,588 participants. The results of the meta-analysis showed, "poorer grip strength was associated with higher risk of cognitive decline" and that people with lower grip strength were at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia.


Additionally, a 2022 prospective cohort study by Esteban-Cornejo et al, set out to examine the associations of grip strength and incidence of developing and dying from dementia. They followed a total 466,788 people for an average of 9.1 years and found weaker grip strength was associated with an increased risk of developing dementia and mortality. In fact, the people with the lowest grip strength had a 72% higher risk of developing dementia and an 87% higher risk of dementia related mortality compared to the people with the highest grip strength in the study.


Both sets of authors speculate about why there is such a strong association between poor grip strength and cognitive decline, but the bottom line is that for anyone looking to stay as mentally sharp as possible, for as long as possible, while decreasing their risk for dementia and Alzheimer's, strength training is critical! In particular, based on these findings, including some amount of strength training that challenges one's grip seems to be a wise choice.


How to test your grip strength


hand grip dynamometer
hand grip dynamometer

There are several easy ways to test your grip strength. The first involves getting your hands on (pun intended) a handgrip dynamometer (see the picture). These are available at most physical and occupational therapy clinics or can be purchased on Amazon for about $25 (at the time of this writing).








The second method involves hanging from a pull-up bar with your arms straight and feet off the ground for as long as you can. If you don't have a pull-up bar, the local monkey bars at a playground will suffice. Noted longevity expert, Peter Attia, MD, encourages his male patients to strive to be able to hang for 2 minutes and his female patients to try to be able to hang for 1.5 minutes at the age of 40. If you are going to undertake this challenge, please make sure you keep your elbow straight and your shoulder blades pulled away from your ears.

woman performing a dead hang
woman performing a dead hang



Conclusion


The benefits of physical strength extend far beyond muscle tone and endurance. By incorporating strength training into your routine (including exercises that help to improve your grip strength), you can boost your cognitive functions, enhance your mental health, reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, improve sleep, decrease stress, and enhance neuroplasticity. Therefore, prioritizing physical strength is not only beneficial for your body but is also critical for maintaining and enhancing brain health.



Not sure how to start strength training, improve your grip, or which exercises are essential to optimize both your brain and body health? The Better With Age program is here to help! Learn how safe and effective strength training can boost your cognitive function, enhance your mood, and reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Our expert guidance will walk you through every step, ensuring you build a stronger body, healthier bones, and a sharper mind with confidence. Join our online program today and transform your life with Better With Age!




Better With Age



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