older couple dancing
Brain Health

Dancing Is Good for Aging Brains

A 2017 study led by a Colorado State University researcher shows that dancing is good for aging brains. A release from the university notes that the research team demonstrated for the first time that decline in the brain’s “white matter” can be detected over a period of only six months in healthy aging adults — faster than most studies have shown. On the bright side, a group of test subjects who participated in dance classes during that time actually saw improved white matter integrity in an area of the brain related to memory and processing speed. A paper on the findings was published March 16 in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

The release quotes said lead researcher Aga Burzynska as saying, “Older adults often ask how they can keep their brain healthy, Dance may end up being one way to do that for the white matter.”

Most people have heard of gray matter, the tissue of the brain containing neurons. White matter can be thought of as the brain’s wiring, similar to cables connecting discs in a computer. As people age, the quality of the brain’s wiring deteriorates. This causes disruptions in the transmission of electrical messages in the brain. Those electrical signals are how our brain cells communicate, and this communication is critical for any brain function: from controlling movements to emotions to complex reasoning tasks.

Burzynska, an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and her fellow researchers found that dance training — perhaps because it incorporates exercise, social interaction, and learning — appeared to have a positive effect on the fornix, a white matter tract in the middle of the brain that is a bundle of those “wires”.

The fornix connects the hippocampus to other areas of the brain and seems to play an important role in memory: Changes in the fornix have been linked to progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease.

Burzynska’s team found that integrity of the fornix increased in the dance group — despite the fact that integrity declined in half of the studied tracts, regardless of the intervention.

The randomized clinical trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health, took four years to complete. The findings were identified in a group of 174 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 79 who met three times a week for six months in a gym at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The subjects were randomly assigned into four groups: one participated in aerobic walking, one did the same aerobic walking and took a daily nutritional supplement, one attended stretching and balance classes (as an active control group), and one took the dance classes. The dance classes were taught by experienced dance instructors and involved choreographed and social group dances that challenged participants’ cognitive and motor-learning abilities.