Study: Dancing may offset some effects of aging in the brain

Square Dancing

A new study led by a Colorado State University researcher shows that kicking up your heels can actually be good for your noggin.

The research team demonstrated for the first time that decline in the brain’s “white matter” can be detected over a period of only six months in healthy aging adults — faster than most studies have shown. On the bright side, a group of test subjects who participated in dance classes during that time actually saw improved white matter integrity in an area of the brain related to memory and processing speed.

Aga Burzynska

“Older adults often ask how they can keep their brain healthy,” said lead researcher Aga Burzynska. “Dance may end up being one way to do that for the white matter.”

A paper on the findings was published March 16 in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

‘White matter’

Everyone’s heard of “gray matter,” the tissue of the brain containing neurons. White matter can be thought of as the brain’s wiring – similar to cables connecting discs in a computer. In this analogy, as people age, the quality of the brain’s wiring deteriorates, causing disruptions in transmission of electrical messages in the brain. Those electrical signals are how our brain cells communicate, and this communication is critical for any brain function: from controlling movements to emotions to complex reasoning tasks.

Burzynska, an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and her fellow researchers found that dance training — perhaps because it incorporates exercise, social interaction and learning — appeared to have a positive effect on the fornix, a white matter tract in the middle of the brain that is a bundle of those “wires.”

The fornix connects the hippocampus to other areas of the brain and seems to play an important role in memory: Changes in the fornix have been linked to progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease.

Burzynska’s team found that integrity of the fornix increased in the dance group — despite the fact that integrity declined in half of the studied tracts, regardless of the intervention.

image of fornix
The fornix is highlighted in this image of the brain.

About the study

The randomized clinical trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health, took four years to complete. The findings were identified in a group of 174 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 79 who met three times a week for six months in a gym at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The subjects were randomly assigned into four groups: one participated in aerobic walking, one did the same aerobic walking and took a daily nutritional supplement, one attended stretching and balance classes (as an active control group), and one took the dance classes. The dance classes were taught by experienced dance instructors and involved choreographed and social group dances that challenged participants’ cognitive and motor-learning abilities.

Each participant’s white matter microstructure was measured using non-invasive, diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging at the beginning and end of the six-month intervention.

The researchers also tracked participants’ actual physical activity before the intervention using accelerometers, and predictably found that those who sat more — or exercised less — on a daily basis saw steeper levels of brain integrity decline during the six months.

Since participants in the exercise-only group didn’t exhibit the same benefits to the fornix, Burzynska says activities like dance that simultaneously provide cognitive and social stimulation in addition to physical activity may be one key takeaway of the findings.

A graph of the findings

‘There’s hope’

“I think it’s amazing,” said Yuqin Jiao, Burzynska’s CSU graduate student who worked on the study’s findings. “It shows that when it comes to the effects of aging, it’s never too late to change. I think that’s important information to deliver: that there’s hope.”

Burzynska agrees.

“Our brain does age, maybe faster than we previously thought, but it seems that there are things we do that can modulate it,” she said. “The lifestyle that people choose can predict the decline.”

Burzynska, who acknowledges with a smile that she had “an episode of modern dance training in high school,” said one goal of the study was to identify a health-promoting activity that individuals can stick with.

“Dance is more enjoyable than just walking in a gym,” she said. “We are looking for things that people find enjoyable and captivating, and will continue doing.”

The study was funded by the NIH’s National Institute on Aging and the Center for Nutrition Learning and Memory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, granted to Arthur F. Kramer (now senior vice provost for research and graduate education at Northeastern University) and Edward McAuley of the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois.

Burzynska is director of the BRAiN Laboratory (Brain Aging: Intervention and Neuroimaging) at CSU. The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.