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Dance Yourself to Better Brain Health

Neurologists tell us that one of the best ways to protect our brains is to exercise our bodies. Exercise not only protects us from heart disease and other health conditions that damage the brain … but in its own right, it increases brain size and builds connections in the brain that keep us sharp. Anything that makes our heart beat a little faster and our muscles work a little harder is beneficial—not only a gym workout or a brisk walk, but also gardening, housework and even active video games.

We should exercise our brains, as well! “Use it or lose it,” the old saying goes. Many seniors use formal “brain games” computer programs, puzzles and so forth to gain protective mental stimulation. Those are helpful, but experts tell us that anything that gives our mind a workout also is beneficial, from crafts and quilting to learning a foreign language or playing an instrument. Neurologists tell us that novelty—leaning something new, thinking in a new way—is especially beneficial.

What if you could get a good dose of mental exercise along with plenty of physical exercise—and have fun doing it? Recent research from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Magdeburg, Germany shows that dancing is a great way to cover both those bases!

The study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, demonstrated the effect. A research team headed by Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld conducted an experiment among a group of volunteers with an average age of 68. Half of the seniors took part in an exercise program that included aerobics and resistance training. The other half learned dance routines.

The researchers took MRI scans of the participants’ brains before the experiment began, and then 18 months later. The scans showed that the seniors in the regular exercise program experienced a size increase in the part of the brain associated with learning and memory—and the participants who danced did even better, also experiencing a significant improvement in their balance.

The dance program was designed to take advantage of the brain-building value of novelty. Dr. Rehfeld reported, “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). Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process.” She added, “The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”

So get out there and dance! If you’re feeling rusty or you’re a novice, check out senior dance programs though your senior center, your area’s parks and recreation department, or through local senior living communities. You’ll be cutting your risk of dementia while you’re cutting a rug—what’s not to love?

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise reporting on a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

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