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It’s no mystery that exercise helps improve the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Everyone also knows, as much as we hate to admit it, that as we age our cognitive function declines. But this decline doesn’t affect everyone equally. And there are ways to reverse some of the impact.

Some people stay mentally sharp well into their senior years, while others see huge declines in recall, reaction time and other aspects of mental acuity. The symptoms of a decline in brain health might include anxiety, depression, and a drop in social involvement.

What part does an active lifestyle, and particularly dance, play in keeping the mind alert and active as we grow older?

Benefits of exercise on the brain

A great many studies have found that exercise programs, even when started late in life, can increase muscle strength and balance. As a result, movement becomes easier and the fear of falling decreases, adding to the enjoyment of life. To get these benefits, the exercise programs should be personalized, tied to specific goals, and optimized in their intensity and frequency for the person’s ability. If you’re a senior planning to start an exercise program, make sure to talk to a health professional to get the correct guidance.

But what about the cognitive impact? Are there some forms of exercise that are more beneficial for the mind?

A study into senior brain health published in the Journal of Exercise and Nutrition Biochemistry found that a 12-week exercise program significantly increased not only strength and aerobic endurance, but also cognitive function and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

Another study examining a multi-component physical exercise program that combined cognitive training found that there was more impact on brain health than just the exercises did alone. While men and women all improved, this and other studies also found that women benefited more from exercise than did men.

Why brain function improves

One of the benefits of exercise is that it improves structural plasticity in the brain, which helps to improve cognitive functions. Balance training in particular was shown to improve structural plasticity by challenging vestibular self-motion perception.

All forms of dance lean heavily on helping improve balance and posture. This emphasis happens by stimulating visual-vestibular pathways while moving and even during fairly stationary moments through aspects such as awareness of head position during rotations and overall posture.

Aerobic activity, including dance, increases blood flow and nutrients to the brain. Naturally, a healthy diet helps by allowing the right balance of nutrients to be applied.

In addition, active dancing increases the neurotrophic brain factor BDNF, which builds up in the hippocampus region. The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory. BDNF causes nerve cells to grow, just as learning new things does. When you combine both—learning something new like dance steps and technique—as well as actively practicing the dance steps, the improvement is multiplied.

Dancing also improves cardiovascular fitness, and this increases blood supply and nutrients to the brain.

Better yet, BDNF plays a central role in brain plasticity by managing changes in cortical thickness and synaptic density as the brain responds to physical activity and through the learning process.

The Journal of Alzheimers reported on a study showing that BDNF levels improved more during a single bout of physical exercise than through a learning session by the same person that didn’t include the physical part.

According to a study entitled “Effects of Dance Intervention on Global Cognition, Executive Function and Memory of Older Adults: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review” (wow, that’s a mouthful!), a challenging dance program in some ways is better than standard fitness activities and can lead to volume changes in certain brain areas such as the hippocampus.

Functional and cognitive changes include improvement in memory, attention, body balance, psychosocial parameters and changes to peripheral BDNF, according to an article in the journal Neuroscience Biobehavior Review.

Dancing also improves cardiovascular fitness, and this increases blood supply and nutrients to the brain. Dancing involves agility. The use of quick movements and responses, memory, attention and concentration all help the brain to grow stronger. We’re causing the brain to fire signals along the same network of cells, which solidifies their connections.

When we add other aspects of healthy living, like hydration, nutrition, good sleep habits, supplements and social interaction, the benefits grow even more dramatic.

George Pytlik

Author George Pytlik

Before turning pro, George achieved impressive results as an amateur competitor, holding the Senior (30+) Latin championship in BC, Canada for 7 consecutive years with his wife Wendy. The couple twice achieved a top-3 Canadian ranking in Senior Latin as well as a 3rd place Canadian ranking in 30+ Ten Dance. Today, George and Wendy are professional teachers with a vision of growing a strong dance community in Delta near Vancouver, BC.

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