Dancing may help fend off ag­ing in the brain

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Monte Wha­ley Monte Wha­ley: 720- 929- 0907, mwha­ley@den­ver­post.com or @mon­te­wha­ley

The waltz won’t do. Nor­will the rumba.

Looks like the good, old- fash­ioned square dance, a. k. a. con­tra dancing, ac­com­pa­nied by a fid­dle and a help­ful caller, could keep older brains fir­ing on all pis­tons.

At least that’s the con­clu­sion of a Colorado State Univer­sity study that tracked what hap­pens to the brain’s “white mat­ter” in older adults.

The CSU re­search team found that dance train­ing in con­tra or English coun­try dancing — think square dancing, but in lines — seems to have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on the fornix, a white- mat­ter tract in the mid­dle of the brain that is ba­si­cally the brain’s wiring. The fornix con­nects the hip­pocam­pus to other ar­eas of the brain and seems to play an im­por­tant role in mem­ory, re­searchers say.

The qual­ity of a brain’s wiring de­te­ri­o­rates as peo­ple age, caus­ing dis­rup­tions in the trans­mis­sion of elec­tri­cal mes­sages in the brain that con­trol ev­ery­thing from emo­tions, move­ments and com­plex rea­son­ing, said lead re­searcher Aga Burzyn­ska.

Burzyn­ska’s team found that in­tegrity of the fornix in­creased in the dance group, de­spite the fact that in­tegrity de­clined in half of the other par­tic­i­pants in­volved in other ac­tiv­i­ties.

Maybe be­cause dance train­ing in­cor­po­rates ex­er­cise, so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and learn­ing, the fornix got health­ier in the dance group, Burzyn­ska said.

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

But it’s not just any dance that will save brains. Re­searchers said con­tra dancing is best be­cause it “min­i­mizes lead- fol­low roles. In­stead these so­cial dances re­quired par­tic­i­pants to move be­tween part­ners dur­ing each dance.”

Con­tra dance is a folk dance made up of long lines of cou­ples. Through­out the course of a dance, cou­ples progress up and down those lines, dancing with other cou­ples in the line. The dance is led by a caller who teaches the se­quence of fig­ures in the dance be­fore the mu­sic starts.

But key changes are made dur­ing the course of a dance, which means par­tic­i­pants must stay on their toes.

The fid­dle is con­sid­ered the core in­stru­ment of the dance but other stringed in­stru­ments such as the gui­tar, banjo, bass and man­dolin are also brought into play.

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 health adults be­tween the ages of 60 and 79 who met three times a week for six months in a gy­mat 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 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 at six months.

Par­tic­i­pants in the ex­er­cise- only group, mean­while, didn’t ex­hibit the same ben­e­fits to the for mix. That leads re­searchers to be be­lieve there is more ben­e­fit in ac­tiv­i­ties like dance, that si­mul­ta­ne­ously pro­vide cog­ni­tive and so­cial stim­u­la­tion in ad­di­tion to phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, a key find­ing in the study.

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