We all want to keep our minds sharp and well-tuned as we age. And a new study just found there’s a fun, easy, no-cost way to do that. What is it? Let’s take a look.
Researchers from the University of Illinois in Urbana and other schools gathered about 175 healthy adults, ages 60 to 79, only some of whom were occasional exercisers. Their mission: To see if different types of exercises could affect the wiring of older people’s brains. Researchers tested the subjects’ aerobic fitness and mental capacities, including processing speed, and they gave them each a brain scan both before and after the trial.1
They split the group into three different groups, and three times a week for six months:
Group #1 did brisk walking for an hour.
Group #2 took a class doing gentle stretching, strength, and balancing exercises.
Group #3 took one-hour dance lessons that grew more challenging as the months went on.
The results? White matter — the part of the brain that passes messages among nerve cells and helps us process information — declined slightly in the brains of the first two groups. But group #3 showed denser white matter in their fornix, a narrow strip of nerve fibers in the brain that is involved with processing speed and memory. Even better news, all three groups improved their scores on cognitive tests.
Why the stronger white matter in the dancers’ brains? Dancing takes a lot of brain power — so learning and mastering new and more challenging choreography likely affected the biochemistry in the brain tissue, helping it to grow stronger. The researchers credit dancing as a “combined cognitive, physical, and social training, known to boost intervention outcomes.”
So you think you can dance
If you’ve never danced before, it’s high time you start! Dance is a great exercise that not only works your mind, it also gets your heart rate up and improves your flexibility and balance. You don’t have to become the next Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. Just do enough to have fun, burn some calories, and get those brain neurons firing. While this study used country-style dancing, any type of dance will probably give you the same outcome. Choose from jazz, salsa, hip-hop, tap, Zumba, or any of the dozens of styles of dance.
Find a beginner class at a local dance studio, health club, or YMCA. If you’re uncomfortable stepping in (and out) alone, grab a friend or convince your spouse to go with you.
If you’re truly opposed to dance and still want to see the brain benefit of the study, engaging in “any activities involving moving and socializing” will help, says the researcher.