The hippocampus is a brain area critical for the ability to fix events into long-term memory. When we reach middle age and beyond, the hippocampus shrinks about 2 to 3% per decade. When we get into our 70s, it might shrink up to 1% per year. Now, a German study shows that dancing prevents this shrinkage, and even make the hippocampus grow.
Just published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, using advanced magnetic resonance techniques, the researchers compared the size of the hippocampus after two different types of exercise programs. Twenty-six healthy men and women, average age 68, finished their 18-month study, and the results showed that dancing was best for hippocampal growth.
The volunteers were randomly split into two groups. One group had supervised “traditional” aerobic training: activities such as stationary biking and Nordic walking. The other group, instead of traditional training, had supervised dance classes. Every two weeks the participants changed to a different dance style, such as jazz, line- and square dancing, mambo, cha cha.
The dancing moves were designed to produce a variety of different challenges for the brain and body, and included head-spins, skips, hops, single-leg stances, and various shifts in the center of gravity. These moves required attention to avoid falling. The dancers were also taught various arm patterns, intentionally putting them off-balance.
The fitness and dance classes each lasted 90 minutes, one or two times a week. Various parts of the hippocampus and neighboring brain areas were measured at the beginning of the study, and after 18 months. Happily—and the opposite of what normally occurs with age—the hippocampus of all the participants grew. The researchers believe this was due to new nerve cell growth in their hippocampus.
Dancing reverses brain aging
So the study participants showed brain changes the opposite of what happens in dementia and Alzheimer’s. Instead of the expected shrinking, their brains grew. And while all improved, only in the dancing group did several “sub-areas” of the hippocampus grow, such as the “subiculum”. Also, only the dancers showed improvements in their overall balance abilities.
Why dancing is better
The researchers believed the dancers improved more because dancing presented a greater variety of challenges to the person than traditional, repetitive endurance training. Dancing involves ever- varying stresses to the visual system, and to the inner-ear balance system. Our muscles and skin receive constantly changing input from our muscles when we dance. Stationery biking and walking, not so much.
Dancers also needed to recall dance routines and make the appropriate moves under time pressure, often without cues from the dance instructor. The variety of mental, physical, sensory, and visual challenges is what helped the dancers more.
The hippocampus can make new cells forever
Previous research has shown that the hippocampus is one area that can grow new nerve cells during our entire lifetime. This is wonderful, since the hippocampus is one of the areas most affected by dementia. Dancing appears to be the best way to prevent shrinkage, and even cause growth, of this critical part of our brains.
Not everyone can, or should, take up slack-lining or ballet dancing as we get older, but most all of us can dance. Best if you can dance in a group, with various routines you need to memorize and reproduce. If you can’t do that, dance by yourself at home. Turn on the music, and, just as you do muscle training to push your muscles to grow, dance to push your brain to grow. Have fun while you defy the aging of your brain!
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