Get your dancing shoes on – your brain will thank you for it. This is the take-away message from a new study, which found that physical activity in later life – particularly dancing – can help to reverse the signs of brain aging.

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Researchers found that dancing increased hippocampal volume and improved balance in older adults.

As we age, a number of brain changes occur, including a decrease in brain tissue, a reduction in blood flow, and a decline in communication between brain cells.

All of these changes can interfere with cognitive functioning, especially learning and memory.

Previous studies have suggested that physical activity in later life can help to reduce cognitive decline. A study reported by Medical News Today last year, for example, linked regular moderate- to high-intensity exercise to a slower decline in memory and thinking skills for the over-50s.

But which forms of exercise are most effective against brain aging? Lead study author Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, of the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Germany, and colleagues sought to answer this question with their new research.

They recently reported their findings in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

The study included 52 healthy adults aged 63-80 years. Each participant was randomly assigned to one of two exercise groups for 18 months.

One group was required to participate in a 90-minute dancing lesson each week for 18 months, while the other group engaged in 90 minutes of strength-endurance training each week.

The researchers note that physical activity varied between each group; while the dance group faced new routines every week, the activities of the strength-endurance training group were repetitive.

“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),” says Dr. Rehfeld.

“Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process,” she adds. “The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”

At study baseline and at the end of the 18-month exercise interventions, each participant underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain. Additionally, subjects’ balance before and after intervention was evaluated using the Sensory Organization Test.

The researchers found that both groups demonstrated an increase in hippocampal volume, but dancers showed the greatest increase.

The hippocampus is the brain region associated with learning, memory, and emotion, and it is the region commonly affected by age-related brain changes.

Interestingly, however, only dancers showed an increase in neuronal connections in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, which is an area associated with memory formation.

Notably, the team found that dancing also led to significant improvements in participants’ balance, while the strength-endurance training group experienced no such benefit.

Dr. Rehfeld and team speculate that the continuous learning process involved in dancing might explain the additional benefits observed.

“The dancers showed increases in some HC [hippocampus] subfields where there was no change to be observed in the sports group. This indicates that apart from physical fitness, other factors inherent in dancing contribute to HC volume changes, too,” write the authors.

“We […] can conclude that the additional challenges involved in our dance program, namely cognitive and sensorimotor stimulation, induced extra HC volume changes in addition to those attributable to physical fitness alone,” they add.

The team notes that the relationship between dancing, fitness training, and brain aging should be further investigated in larger studies. In particular, the researchers believe future research should assess whether dancing might help to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

In the meantime, the researchers recommend that older adults get up and move their feet to a beat – it could do wonders for the brain.

“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,” says Dr. Rehfeld.

I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age.”

Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld