Learning a social dance may help improve memory and the brain’s processing speed

A recent article by Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times, shares the results of a new study* that looked at the neurological effects of country dancing compared with other activities.  As we get older, the speed at which our brains can take in, assess, and process new information gets slower.  Scientists believe this is related to the brain’s white matter (the wiring), which has specialized cells that pass messages from one part of the brain to another.

The study, cited in this article, wanted to see if/how different types of exercise affects this wiring.  It selected 174 healthy people in their 60’s and 70’s, were mainly sedentary, and had no signs of cognitive problems.  After initial testing to set a base line, they were divided into three groups.  One group did brisk walking for an hour three times a week, another did gentle stretching and balance training three times a week, and the third group learned to dance.  The dance group went to a studio three times a week for an hour and practiced increasingly intricate country dance choreography.

After six months, the three groups repeated the initial tests. The first two groups showed some signs of continued degeneration of the white matter; this was especially true for those that had been the most sedentary.  The dance group, however, showed an actual improvement in the portion of the white matter involved with processing speed and memory.  It appears that the cognitive demands of learning and mastering new choreography for the six months affected the bio-chemistry of this wiring in the brain.  These results suggest that activities that involve moving and socializing, such as dancing, may help our mental abilities as we age.


*Study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience by researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana, with lead author Agnieszka Burzynska, a professor of human development and neuroscience at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

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