Ballroom dancing can reduce aging-related brain atrophy in the hippocampus (and, more than treadmill walking!)

Social ball­room danc­ing can improve cog­ni­tive func­tions and reduce brain atro­phy in old­er adults who are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s dis­ease and oth­er forms of demen­tia. That’s the key find­ing of my team’s recent­ly pub­lished study in the Jour­nal of Aging and Phys­i­cal Activity.

In our study, we enrolled 25 adults over 65 years of age in either six months of twice-week­ly ball­room danc­ing class­es or six months of twice-week­ly tread­mill walk­ing class­es. None of them were engaged in for­mal danc­ing or oth­er exer­cise programs.

The over­all goal was to see how each expe­ri­ence affect­ed cog­ni­tive func­tion and brain health.

While none of the study vol­un­teers had a demen­tia diag­no­sis, all per­formed a bit low­er than expect­ed on at least one of our demen­tia screen­ing tests. We found that old­er adults that com­plet­ed six months of social danc­ing and those that com­plet­ed six months of tread­mill walk­ing improved their exec­u­tive func­tion­ing – an umbrel­la term for plan­ning, rea­son­ing and pro­cess­ing tasks that require attention.

Danc­ing, how­ev­er, gen­er­at­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater improve­ments than tread­mill walk­ing on one mea­sure of exec­u­tive func­tion and on pro­cess­ing speed, which is the time it takes to respond to or process infor­ma­tion. Com­pared with walk­ing, danc­ing was also asso­ci­at­ed with reduced brain atro­phy in the hip­pocam­pus – a brain region that is key to mem­o­ry func­tion­ing and is par­tic­u­lar­ly affect­ed by Alzheimer’s dis­ease. Researchers also know that this part of our brain can under­go neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis – or grow new neu­rons – in response to aer­o­bic exercise.

While sev­er­al pre­vi­ous stud­ies sug­gest that danc­ing has ben­e­fi­cial effects on cog­ni­tive func­tion in old­er adults, only a few stud­ies have com­pared it direct­ly with tra­di­tion­al exer­cis­es. Our study is the first to observe both bet­ter cog­ni­tive func­tion and improved brain health fol­low­ing danc­ing than walk­ing in old­er adults at risk for demen­tia. We think that social danc­ing may be more ben­e­fi­cial than walk­ing because it is phys­i­cal­ly, social­ly and cog­ni­tive­ly demand­ing – and there­fore strength­ens a wide net­work of brain regions.

While danc­ing, you’re not only using brain regions that are impor­tant for phys­i­cal move­ment. You’re also rely­ing on brain regions that are impor­tant for inter­act­ing and adapt­ing to the move­ments of your danc­ing part­ner, as well as those nec­es­sary for learn­ing new dance steps or remem­ber­ing those you’ve learned already.

Why it matters

Near­ly 6 mil­lion old­er adults in the U.S. and 55 mil­lion world­wide have Alzheimer’s dis­ease or a relat­ed demen­tia, yet there is no cure. Sad­ly, the effi­ca­cy and ethics sur­round­ing recent­ly devel­oped drug treat­ments are still under debate.

The good news is that old­er adults can poten­tial­ly low­er their risk for demen­tia through lifestyle inter­ven­tions, even lat­er in life. These include reduc­ing social iso­la­tion and phys­i­cal inactivity.

Social ball­room danc­ing tar­gets both iso­la­tion and inac­tiv­i­ty. In these lat­er stages of the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic, a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the indi­rect effects of COVID-19 – par­tic­u­lar­ly those that increase demen­tia risk, such as social iso­la­tion – is urgent­ly need­ed. In my view, ear­ly inter­ven­tion is crit­i­cal to pre­vent demen­tia from becom­ing the next pan­dem­ic. Social danc­ing could be a par­tic­u­lar­ly time­ly way to over­come the adverse cog­ni­tive and brain effects asso­ci­at­ed with iso­la­tion and few­er social inter­ac­tions dur­ing the pandemic.

What still isn’t known

Tra­di­tion­al aer­o­bic exer­cise inter­ven­tions such as tread­mill-walk­ing or run­ning have been shown to lead to mod­est but reli­able improve­ments in cog­ni­tion – par­tic­u­lar­ly in exec­u­tive function.

My team’s study builds on that research and pro­vides pre­lim­i­nary evi­dence that not all exer­cise is equal when it comes to brain health. Yet our sam­ple size was quite small, and larg­er stud­ies are need­ed to con­firm these ini­tial find­ings. Addi­tion­al stud­ies are also need­ed to deter­mine the opti­mal length, fre­quen­cy and inten­si­ty of danc­ing class­es that may result in pos­i­tive changes.

Lifestyle inter­ven­tions like social ball­room danc­ing are a promis­ing, non­in­va­sive and cost-effec­tive path toward staving off demen­tia as we – even­tu­al­ly – leave the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic behind.

Hele­na Blu­men is Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Med­i­cine and Neu­rol­o­gy, Albert Ein­stein Col­lege of Med­i­cine, with with exper­tise and train­ing in cog­ni­tive and motor aging, mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing and clin­i­cal research meth­ods. The arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on The Con­ver­sa­tion.

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