Use it or lose it continues to reverberate as I learn about work done trying to understand aging and its effect on the human brain. Here is a study published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity,” says Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study, based at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany.
From animal research, it is known that combining physical activity with sensory enrichment has stronger and longer-lasting effects on the brain than either treatment alone. For humans dancing has been suggested to be analogous to such combined training. Here we assessed whether a newly designed dance training program that stresses the constant learning of new movement patterns is superior in terms of neuroplasticity to conventional fitness activities with repetitive exercises and whether extending the training duration has additional benefits.
The study was designed as an 18-month controlled intervention. It was approved by the ethics committee of Otto-von-Guericke University, Magdeburg. Some 52 healthy elderly individuals (63–80 years) recruited via announcements in local newspapers were screened for the study. They were then randomly assigned to either the dance or the sport group. Assessments were performed at baseline, after 6 and after 18 months of training.
Participants in the dance group attended a newly designed training program in which they were constantly asked to learn new movement sequences. These choreographies required the coordination of different body parts (i.e., legs, arms, trunk) in space under different strain conditions (physical strain, precision, situation and time pressure). The subjects had to learn the choreographies by heart, thus imposing high demands on memory as well. The program comprised five different genres (line dance, jazz dance, rock “n” roll and square dance), which were switched after every fourth session. Over the course of the intervention, coordinative demands and time pressure were increased by introducing more complex dance moves and choreographies and by increasing the beats per minute in the music.
Participants in the sport group completed a conventional strength-endurance training program with mainly repetitive exercises and low demands in terms of whole-body coordination and memory. Each session comprised 20-min units of endurance, strength-endurance and flexibility training. The endurance training was performed on cycle ergometers. In the strength-endurance unit, alternating movements (e.g., biceps curls, squats, sit-ups) were performed, but complex whole body movements were avoided to keep coordinative demands low. The flexibility unit mainly consisted of stretching exercises.
In this study, we compared the effects of participation in either a dance program or a conventional physical fitness sport program on brain function and volume in healthy seniors. The dance program was a newly designed intervention that required constantly learning new dance choreographies. The conventional sport program focused mainly on repetitive motor exercises. As a main finding, we observed that after 6 months of training, the volumes in the left precentral gyrus of the dancers had increased more than those in the sport group. After another 12 months of training, an additional volume increase was observed in the right parahippocampal gyrus of the dancers. BDNF levels increased during the first 6 months of dance training and returned to the pre-treatment values after 18 months. In the conventional sport group, a similar increase in BDNF was not evident. Because the cardiovascular fitness levels over the course of the interventions remained constant in both groups, the observed effects could not be attributed to improvements in physical fitness but instead seemed to be related to the specific features of the dance program. These features included the requirement to constantly learn new choreographies (i.e., memory), to integrate multisensory information, to coordinate the whole body and to navigate in space.
The results of our study suggest that a long-term dancing intervention could be superior to repetitive physical exercise in inducing neuroplasticity in the aging human brain. We presume that this advantage is related to the multimodal nature of dancing, which combines physical, cognitive and coordinative challenges. To our knowledge, this is the first longitudinal, randomized study to recommend dancing programs as a means of preventing gray matter and cognitive decline in the elderly.
Further research is needed to clarify in greater detail the temporal dynamics and the underlying neurobiological mechanisms of dance-induced neuroplasticity and whether this intervention truly has the potential to reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.