It’s no secret that as we age, our cognitive functioning declines. Studies show that past age 40, our brains’ white matter degenerates, slowing down memory and the speed at which we process information. But what if you could grow back white matter and not just prevent further degeneration? Well, you can — by doing a two-step or dancing the waltz.
It turns out country dancing, which involves detailed choreography, does more to boost brain functioning than other exercises, according to a new study recently published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Researchers from the University of Illinois in Urbana and other schools recruited 174 healthy subjects in their 60s and 70s — both sedentary folks and those who already practiced light exercise.
They had the subjects take tests measuring their “aerobic fitness and mental capacities, including processing speed and a brain scan with a sophisticated MRI machine,” the New York Times reports. All subjects proved to have degeneration of their white matter, including “slight thinning of the size and number of connections between neurons.”
The folks were then split into three groups. The first group did brisk walking, the second engaged in stretching and balance training, and the third was invited to hit the dance floor: “These men and women showed up to a studio three times a week for an hour and practiced increasingly intricate country-dance choreography, with the group shaping itself into fluid lines and squares and each person moving from partner to partner.”
After six months of exercise, says the article, participants from all three groups were invited to retake the tests they had taken at the outset of the study. The results were shocking. Participants in the first two groups showed increased degeneration in white matter. But the third group — the dancers — not only avoided that fate, but their white matter actually became more dense, particularly in the “fornix, a part of the brain involved with processing speed and memory,” says the article.
When they were asked to retake thinking tests that they had taken six months prior, though, none of the groups outperformed any other. All did better on the tests, but the dancing group — the ones whose white matter had been beefed up — were at about the same level of cognitive function as their peers, says the article. The researchers’ conclusion? “There could be a time lag between when the brain changes structurally and when we start having trouble thinking and remembering,” said Agnieszka Burzynska, the study’s lead author and a professor of human development and neuroscience at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
The fact that all participants’ mental performances improved showed researchers that physical activity — especially of the social variety — is healthy for brain function. But “the cognitive demands of the dancing, which required people to learn and master new choreography throughout the six months of the study, affected the biochemistry of the brain tissue in the fornix,” Burzynska told the New York Times.
The general takeaway, says Burzynska, is that exercising and socializing are both crucial for keeping brains healthy and sharp as we age. But learning the contra dance and sashay is a whole other ball game. The intricacies and intense social interaction of country dance was a game changer for participants, which could shed light on choreographed dance as a means of warding off cognitive decline.
More research needs to be done, researchers say, to measure the effects of other kinds of exercise and different types of choreographed dance (foxtrot, anyone?) on mental functioning and the regrowth of white matter. In the meantime, if you’re over 40, or you simply want to keep your brain in shape, then grab your partner and dosey doe!
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