Dementia. We all make jokes about it: grey nomads put ‘Adventure Before Dementia’ stickers on the back of their Winnebagos; middle-aged people ascribe forgetting a familiar name or fact to ‘having a senior moment’; and the ‘silly old bugger’ character is a standard fixture of TV shows and movies.

But if you’ve ever watched a loved one succumb to the ravages of dementia – the progressive loss of the ability to care for themselves, carry on a conversation, connect with family and friends, and eventually to even remember who they are, as their entire personality disintegrates – you know that dementia is the most unfunny experience ever, for all concerned.

Contrary to popular mythology, dementia is not a natural part of aging. It’s a group of over 100 diseases (including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, Lewy Body disease, frontotemporal dementia and alcohol related dementia) that damage the brain, causing progressive loss of its functions.

10% of Australians aged over 65, and a startling 31% of those over 85, are living with dementia. And when I say that they’re living with it, the reality is that all of those around them – their partner, children, friends and the medical and aged care systems – are living with it too. In fact, over 50% of residents of government-funded nursing homes suffer from dementia.

The economic, social and emotional costs of caring for the 342,800 Australians were living with dementia in 2015, are staggering and are only set to rise: because our population is getting larger and, on average, older, and the number of dementia sufferers is projected to reach almost 400,000 by 2020, and roughly 900,000 by 2050.

In the absence of effective medical therapy, many people hope that simply ‘keeping their brains active’ by doing crossword puzzles, reading, learning a foreign language and so on, will help to stave off dementia. There is some evidence of benefits of this strategy, both for healthy older people and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Think of MCI as ‘pre-dementia’ – an intermediate stage between normal cognitive function and dementia, which puts you at high risk of developing dementia.

More formal types of cognitive training, either delivered by health professionals or computers, have also shown some benefit for both cognitively healthy people and those with MCI, although results have been mixed.

But keeping your body active may do even more good for your brain than just stimulating your grey matter, according to a team of Australian researchers who compared the effectiveness of a cognitive training program (a structured, multidomain computerised intervention) with a high intensity progressive resistance training program (supervised weight training sessions using gym machines to work the major muscle groups, at high intensity, using progressively greater weights as participants’ strength increased), in staving off the onset of dementia in people with MCI.

What they found was truly fascinating. (Part 2 coming soon…)

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