Joining a square dance group or learning to folk dance or waltz may be a great way to help keep the aging brain healthy, a new study suggests. The study found that social dances were particularly effective in slowing the loss of brainpower that can come with aging, better than other activities like walking or stretching.
For the study, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recruited 174 men and women in their 60s and 70s and gave them brain scans and physical checkups. All were generally healthy, but they tended to engage in little physical activity.
The volunteers were divided into four groups. One group met three times a week for an hour of brisk walking. A second group walked and was given a nutritional drink containing beta-alanine, an amino acid that promotes muscle strength. A third group went to classes of gentle stretching and balance exercises three times a week. And the final group attended three-times-a-week classes in country dancing, in which they learned increasingly complex and intricate choreography and line dances.
After six months of these activities, the volunteers underwent additional brain scans.
The researchers found that in many of the volunteers, the brain’s white matter had decreased slightly — not a surprising finding. Thinning of the white matter, which is involved in transmitting information quickly from one part of the brain to another and is important for various brain functions, is a natural consequence of aging.
But in the group that had danced, the white matter had actually increased in parts of the brain critical for memory and processing speed.The study was published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
The findings are encouraging news for anyone looking for new ways to help keep the brain sharp in old age. They add to a growing body of evidence that exercise is good the brain and may help to ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia in old age.
Two aspects of the dancing could have been particularly helpful for the brains of participants. First, these were folk dances with a social component, and numerous studies have shown that social connection is good for brain health. Second, the dances required learning novel and intricate dance patterns, and other research has shown that mental challenges can be good for the brain. Both features may have explained in part why dancing had a bigger impact than walking or stretching.
Other research has shown that whether older people dance, swim, walk jog, or garden, physical activity helps to preserve parts of the brain critical for memory and thinking, compared to their sedentary peers. Activities like walking may also help to delay declines in thinking in those who are already in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, research shows.
Current treatments for Alzheimer’s disease are limited in their effectiveness. So any approach that may help to prevent or slow the onset of dementia is crucial to keeping the brain healthy with age.
By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.
Agnieszka Z. Burzynska, et al: “White Matter Integrity Declined Over 6-Months, but Dance Intervention Improved Integrity of the Fornix of Older Adults.” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, March 16, 2017