A new study finds that older adults who routinely exercise can reverse signs of aging in the brain, and the physical activity that seems to have one of the most profound effects is dancing. The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity,” said Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study based at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Magdeburg, Germany.
“In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that lead to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance.”
For the study, elderly participants with an average age of 68 were assigned either to an eighteen-month weekly course of learning dance routines, or endurance and flexibility training. Both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus region of the brain.
This is important because this brain region is prone to age-related decline and can be affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s. The hippocampus also plays a key role in memory and learning, as well as keeping one’s balance.
While prior research has shown that physical exercise can combat age-related brain decline, it was still unknown whether one type of exercise is better than another. To assess this, the exercise routines given to the study participants differed. The traditional fitness training program primarily involved repetitive exercises, such as cycling or Nordic walking, but the dance group was challenged with something new each week.
“We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres,” said Rehfeld, citing such forms as jazz dance, square dance, Latin and line dance.
“Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed, and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”
The researchers believe that these extra challenges account for the noticeable differences in balance displayed by the participants in the dancing group. The research team is now building on these findings to try out new fitness programs that have the potential of maximizing anti-aging effects on the brain.
“Right now, we are evaluating a new system called Jymmin (jamming and gymnastic). This is a sensor-based system which generates sounds (melodies, rhythm) based on physical activity. We know that dementia patients react strongly when listening to music. We want to combine the promising aspects of physical activity and active music making in a feasibility study with dementia patients,” said Rehfeld.
“I believe that everybody would like to live an independent and healthy life, for as long as possible. Physical activity is one of the lifestyle factors that can contribute to this, counteracting several risk factors and slowing down age-related decline. I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age.”