Recent research has identified dancing as having a significant positive effect on age-related decline in both mental and physical activities.
We know that the brain shrinks as we age. And lower brain size is related to memory problems and diseases like Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
We also know that physical activity has a positive impact on brain health, particularly improving hippocampal volume. This study compared aerobic physical activity — walking and biking — with dancing and looked at the effect on the hippocampus.
Why the Hippocampus
The hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with memory, learning and balance. As we age, our hippocampus will shrink. That process accelerates in very old age. Diseases like Alzheimer’s affect the hippocampus even more. This is one reason our memory, balance, and ability to learn new material are affected as we age.
The hippocampus is also a part of the brain that has demonstrated the ability to create new brain cells. It can increase in size — and normal age-related shrinking can be counteracted.
Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus. This German study was interested in examining different kinds of aerobic exercise to see what type of exercise was optimal.
The Dance Challenge
The study examined individuals over 18 months. One group was in a dance training program, the other group was in a cycling and Nordic pole walking program.
The dance program required the participants to learn new dance steps every two weeks. So, there was a continuous learning aspect to the program. Dance classes involved new choreography which the participants had to memorize. The dance choreography was designed to challenge the balance system including single-leg stances, skips and hops, steps used in the mambo, cha-cha, grapevine, and other jazz steps. The participants had to remember and perform the dance moves without overt instructor assistance.
The other group did not have a continuous learning aspect to their fitness-training program. They did endurance training on the bicycle for 6 months and then did Nordic walking for 12 months. They also engaged in strength training and flexibility training.
The Dance Difference
The study used MRI and other measurement tools to determine the volume change in the hippocampus. All participants were healthy seniors between the ages of 65 and 80. There were no group differences at the beginning of the study.
While the hippocampus did increase in volume in both groups, the dance group saw significant increases in right hippocampal volume.
The dance program, which combined physical activity with a mentally challenging task, remembering the dance steps, had a significant impact on the hippocampus.
This study is further evidence that life-style factors can significantly impact the aging brain. The social aspect of the group activities was important as was the combination of physical and cognitive activities.
So physical activities like dancing, Zumba classes, or my favourite, synchronized swimming combine both physical exercise with a cognitive component and will have a maximum impact on the brain’s hippocampus.
This is good news for the aging brain.