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The Best Exercise to Prevent Mental Decline

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Exercise can boost brain health and slow cognitive decline. One form of exercise in particular seems to produce the best benefits—dancing!

Researchers compared changes in balance and hippocampus volume in older adults aged 63–80 who participated in either dance or exercise classes for 18 months. Subjects met twice a week for 90 minutes in the first 6 months and then once per week for the next year. Dance classes included continually changing choreography with head turns, skips and hops, as well as steps like mambo and grapevine. Exercise classes consisted of endurance drills, strength endurance movements and flexibility training. All subjects underwent brain scans and postural control assessments as primary measures.

At study completion, the researchers noticed significant increases in left hippocampal volume in both groups. The dancers, however, showed increases in other areas of the hippocampus as well.

“The hippocampus is of special interest, as this brain structure (a) is especially affected by normal and pathological aging, (b) plays a key role in major cognitive processes, e.g., memory and learning, and (c) is also involved in keeping one’s balance, a function [that] is crucial for well-being and quality of life,” the study authors wrote. Dancers also saw superior improvements in balance scores compared with the exercise group.

So why was the dance intervention so effective at boosting hippocampal volume and balance?

Researchers concluded that “the additional challenges involved in our dance program, namely cognitive and sensorimotor stimulation, induced extra hippocampus volume changes in addition to those attributable to physical fitness alone. It is noteworthy that other studies in elderly humans, which did not boost physical fitness but which were sensorimotor demanding, such as learning to juggle, have observed hippocampus volume increases as well.”

The study was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2017; doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00305).

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor, and IDEA's director of event programming.

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