adidas ultra boost Lessons can lead to better brain health
Walking can do wonders for your brain, but waltzing might be an even better choice.
Adults who took dance lessons three times a week saw gains in brain health that those who engaged in more mundane exercise didn’t, according to a new study.
Researchers aren’t sure why dancing turned out to be such good protection against the effects of brain aging. But the fact that it’s fun, physically invigorating and socially engaging probably has something to do with it.
For older adults looking to keep their mind sharp, the fun factor is particularly important, says Aga Burzynska, director of the BRAiN Laboratory at Colorado State University and lead researcher in the study.
“I think it’s important to have activities that you enjoy, that keep you going, and that you’re looking forward to,” she says. “We can’t think about brain health obsessively. If we only do something to check a healthy behavior off the list, that would be sad. That’s why this subject of dancing is important. Dancing is fun.”
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Burzynska and her fellow researchers followed more than 170 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 79. The participants were put in groups that tested the cognitive benefits of four different activities:
Some did aerobic exercise that involved walking laps around the gym at a brisk pace.
Some walked, and also took a nutritional supplement.
The third group did light stretching and balance exercises.
The final group took dance lessons led by an experienced dance instructor. The focus was on learning social dance forms, such as Contra and English Country dancing, in a way that challenged both their minds and their motor skills.
The dance segment was added to see how older adults might fare with an option more appealing than traditional exercise, which they often give up on.
“Brisk walking can have a cognitive effect, but we know people tend to discontinue,” Burzynska says. “As long as we push them to do it, they do it, but a lot of people basically discontinue this lifestyle. Dancing may be more fun that just making people cover a certain distance walking in a circle in the gym.”
Researchers also were interested in looking at dancing because it offers more than an aerobic benefit. Learning something new and challenging is a proven way to protect our mind against dementia. Finding ways to stay socially connected to other people is protective, too. Taking dance lessons delivers a healthy dose of both.
“We thought it might be an interesting combination,” says Burzynska, “and an activity that might be easier for people to maintain over a longer period of time.”
Whatever form of activity the adults were assigned to, they engaged in it three times a week for a period of six months. At the beginning of that period and then again at the end, they underwent an MRI to see how it affected the volume of white matter in their brain.
White matter plays a crucial role in brain activity, and it’s something we tend to lose as we age. Think of white matter as cables that connect different parts of the brain. If those cables weaken or fray,
your brain can’t function as well.
The study on dance and exercise looked specifically at a key bundle of white matter called the fornix that’s associated with memory and processing speed.
The study found two unexpected results. The first was that most participants saw a decline in brain white matter during the six months they were studied. No previous study has suggested that older adults lose white matter over such a short span of time.
Still, those who exercised saw less decline, which leads Burzynska to offer this simple advice. “Avoid sitting for too long,” she says. “We show in this study people who are sitting less and moving more, they decline more slowly over six months.”
Unfortunately, she says, that result has been largely overlooked because of the other unexpected finding captured so much more attention.
It turns out one group, and one group only, bucked the trend. The people who took dance lessons actually saw their fornix increase in volume by the end of the study.
“I was a bit surprised that in this one brain region, the fornix, dance had the most positive effect,” Burzynska says. “On the other hand, knowing that dance combines physical, social and cognitive stimulation, in a way I was not surprised that six months of training was most successful with that mixed intervention.”
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This study, which was Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in March, isn’t the only research to examine dance as a potential source of improved brain health. Going back as far 2003, studies have associated ballroom dancing with lower rates of dementia among older adults.
In the past couple of years, other studies have looked at ways to use dance as therapy for people with Parkinson’s disease or dementia.
Maybe you’ve enjoyed dance in the past, but put away your dancing shoes. Now could be the ideal to rekindle that interest. Or if you’ve never danced, don’t let that prevent you from taking it up now.
“From what I can see and also from my interaction with my participants, it’s really never too late to start; it can do a lot of good,” Burzynska says.
“It doesn’t even have to be dancing,” she adds. “There are so many activities people enjoy. Whatever we do is better than not doing it,
but people should have fun.”