As you age, the brain undergoes many change, including: decreased brain tissue, reduction in blood flow, and decline in communication between brain cells. All of these changes can interfere with cognitive functioning, especially learning and memory. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is an age-associated neurodegenerative condition that predominantly affects the memory centers of the brain.
Previous studies have suggested that physical activity delays age-associated cognitive decline. Regular moderate-to high-intensity exercise has been found to protect memory and thinking skills for people above 50 years. For centuries, dance manuals have lauded the health benefits of dancing not just as a physical exercise but also for reducing stress and increasing a sense of well-being.
A recent study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience* adds to growing evidence that dancing stimulates the mind and body, decreases the risk of AD and other dementias, and increases cognitive acuity at all ages. The study included 52 healthy adults aged 63-80 years. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of two exercise groups for 18 months. One group was required to participate in a 90-minute dancing lesson each week for 18 months, while the other group engaged in 90 minutes of strength training each week.
At the end of 18 months, both groups had an increase in hippocampal volume, though the group that danced had the greatest increase. Interestingly, only dancers showed an increase in neuronal connections associated with memory formation. Furthermore, the team found that dancing led to significant improvements in participants’ balance, while the strength-endurance training group experienced no such benefit.
The researchers noted that while both the dance classes and strength training were forms of physical activity, the dance classes incorporated different dance steps, routines, and music each week. By learning new steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms each week, those taking dance classes were constantly learning, when compared to the set strength training routine.
Other studies have also confirmed that that the continuous learning process involved in dancing integrates several brain functions at once —kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — all of which increases the neural connectivity. Thus, while we wait for larger studies investigating the relationship between dancing, fitness training, and brain aging, let us also remind ourselves that physical activity in later life – particularly dancing – is a powerful tool that can help maintain cognitive function.
For more information about improving cognition and prevention or treating early dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease, please visit www.affirmativhealth.com.
*Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors. Rehfeld K, Müller P, Aye N, Schmicker M, Dordevic M, Kaufmann J, Hökelmann A, Müller NG. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017 Jun 15;11:305.