The intense search for effective Alzheimer’s treatments has uncovered persuasive evidence that performing certain complex tasks may help the brain form new neural pathways that can slow cognitive decline and help ward off dementia. Most of those tasks are mental in nature, such as reading and doing challenging puzzles. However, there is also at least one physical activity that has been shown to help improve brain health: dancing.
Attention first began to focus on dancing with the results of a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003. It showed that among 11 forms of physical leisure practiced by the study’s subjects over a 21-year span, frequent dancing was the only one that appeared to lower the risk of dementia.
Now a more recent study has produced new evidence that dancing can have beneficial effects on the tissue in the brain that biologists call “white matter,” which facilitates communication among different regions of grey matter in the brain. That communication is vital for preserving cognitive functions.
In the new study, conducted by scientists from five universities under the auspices of the University of Colorado, and partially funded by the National Institute on Aging, 174 healthy subjects aged 60 to 79 were divided randomly into four groups. Meeting in a gym three times a week for six months, one group took part in dancing, another was assigned to aerobic walking, a third combined aerobic walking with taking nutritional supplements, and the fourth served as a control group, confining its activity to stretching and toning exercises. Changes in areas of the brain were monitored periodically using a form of magnetic resonance imaging.
While the study’s complex findings covered a wide range of brain functions, the result that attracted the greatest level of attention is that the dance group participants experienced the most beneficial effects, strengthening the integrity of the white matter structure in their brains.
“We provided first evidence for a dance intervention resulting in (a white matter benefit),” said the study authors in their report. “We attribute this to the fact that dance is a combined cognitive, physical and social training, known to boost intervention outcomes.”
How can seniors best take advantage of these findings? The primary answer is: prudently. While physical exercise is encouraged for people of all ages as a part of a healthy lifestyle, seniors may want to speak to their doctor before adding dance into the mix.
It should also be noted that the dancing in the study involved predetermined steps and the social interaction associated with more formal dances. By contrast, many of us associate dancing with simply standing on a dance floor and “doing our thing” to the music. Seniors who are not acquainted with ballroom or country dances, or even hip hop’s more gentle movements (there are classes for seniors), may not experience the same benefits as those that the study participants experienced. If you’d like to add dance in as a part of your health routine, opt for lessons or learn from your spouse or other dance partner.
Equally important, if your physical circumstances, or your loved one’s, simply will not allow for dancing, do not be discouraged. Virtually all forms of physical exercise can be highly beneficial, even leisurely walks. Do as much as you can, for yourself and your loved one.