Dancing the night away to good music is something young people often do. Seniors aren't always able to get out as much, and some do not have the physical stamina to bust a move on the dance floor, but as it happens dancing could be an excellent way for older folks to stay mentally sharp. Getting older isn't always easy and can come with physical ailments like arthritis and muscle weakness as well as mental impairment from Alzheimer's disease or other neurological issues.
A new study from the Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Magdeburg, Germany published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, shows that exercise can improve signs of aging in the brain. It's been established from multiple earlier research studies that exercise helps with cognition, but the most recent work suggested that dance was better than traditional exercises like walking or strength training.
Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, the lead author of the study, stated, "Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity. 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."
The study recruited elderly volunteers, and the average age of the group was 68. They were randomly sorted into two sub-groups, one where subjects participated in a training regimen of walking and exercise to increase flexibility and endurance and the other where they took a class to learn dance routines. Baseline brain scans were conducted on all volunteers at the beginning and end of the study, as well as measurements of strength, flexibility, and endurance. Both groups showed a marked increase in the hippocampus region which is the area most affected by memory disorders and age-related cognitive impairment. It's also part of the how the brain regulates balance, which is key for older adults since falls are a major risk in those over the age of 65.
Knowing that physical exercise is good for the brain is only part of the equation needed to stay healthier mentally, however. There are many different kinds of exercise so picking a particular type of physical activity is a key factor in maximizing the benefits. This narrowing down to a particular form of working out was the goal of the team in Germany. In the group that attended the traditional exercise sessions, it was mostly repetitive motions, week after week. The group who took dance classes was a little different because the routines were changed up and various styles of dance were introduced every few weeks. Dr. Rehfeld explained, "We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American 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 mental part of the dance classes is what likely accounts for the better outcomes in the group of volunteers who learned dance moves. The team is Germany is working on designing a program that involves dance and some gymnastic moves that are coordinated with music and sensors to build on this research since music is also beneficial in improving cognitive decline. Take a look at the video below to hear about one program of dance for those with dementia.