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This research might turn the spouse on the couch into a dance partner
A scene from "Footloose." - photo by Jennifer Graham
Dancing burns calories, but it may also help bolster an aging brain, particularly if you have to learn complex steps, a new study suggests.

The research, published March 16 in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, found that the portion of the brain associated with memory and processing speed improved in just six months among people who took a challenging dance class.

Researchers recruited 174 adults between the ages of 60 and 79 and asked them to meet three times a week for six months at a gym at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Participants were divided into four groups: one did aerobic walking; one did aerobic walking and took a nutritional supplement; one took stretching and balance classes; and one took dance classes involving choreographed, group routines.

Before and after the study, the research team took pictures of the participants brains using magnetic resonance imaging. They found that the dancers showed improvement in the white matter of their brains, specifically in a structure called the fornix, which is believed to affect memory and typically declines with age. The other groups showed no such improvement, and in fact, in half of the images, their white-matter integrity had slightly declined.

The researchers believe that the combination of movement and the cognitive challenges involved in learning a dance could be responsible for the results.

Older adults often ask how they can keep their brain healthy. Dance may end up being one way to do that for the white matter, lead researcher Agnieszka Burzynska, an assistant professor at Colorado State University, said in a statement.

The findings have implications not only for people eligible for senior discounts but for those much younger as well. As Gretchen Reynolds of The New York Times reported, cognitive changes can begin in middle age.

Processing speed, which is a measure of how rapidly our brains can absorb, assess and respond to new information, seems to be particularly hard hit, Reynolds wrote. Most people who are older than about 40 perform worse on tests of processing speed than those who are younger, with the effects accelerating as the decades pass.

What white matter is

White matter is sometimes described as the wiring of the brain, or the brain's subway. It's made up of millions of nerve fibers buried under the gray matter (what most people think of when they envision a brain), and its job is to shuttle messages around the brain. When white matter deteriorates, our neural messaging slows. It's like the difference between fast typing and hunt and peck.

Although there is some evidence that new brain cells can form into our 60s, white matter degrades over time most noticeably after age 50 and its not known if the decline can be stopped. In fact, the study was particularly worrisome in one way: It showed that "robust" decline in white-matter integrity was apparent within six months among healthy, active seniors.

This study, however, offers hope that physical exercise can help. The degeneration of white matter was most pronounced in the oldest participants, and those who were the least active before the study began, Burzynska said.

Notably, the change was only apparent on the MRI images. In cognitive tests, all of the participants performed better at the end of the study, regardless of what group they were in.

This could indicate that theres a lag time between when changes occur in the brain and when effects show up in daily living, Reynolds reported.

But the researchers cautioned that their study "may not be sufficient to detect robust brain-cognition correlations and effects of intervention groups on cognition." In other words, dancing may very well help your brain work better, but this research did not prove that. More study, over a longer period time, is needed, the researchers said.

Dancing and memory

While waiting for that additional research, we can revisit dozens of previous studies that show dancing is an effective and enjoyable way to get exercise, and that exercise, in addition to being good for your body, is a component of good mental health.

Salsa dancing has been found to make participants walk faster (and walking speed is a predictor of early death). Waltzing appears to improve heart function and mood. A nonprofit in the United Kingdom is promoting regular Zumba and line dancing as way to prevent cancer, strokes and hip fractures in older adults.

And while it was published in 2003, a study of 469 seniors and their leisure activities is still compelling: The researchers found that frequent dancing lowered the risk of dementia by 76 percent, more than doing crossword puzzles four times a week.

Stanford University professor Richard Powers takes it even further and says dancing "increases cognitive acuity at all ages." But it becomes even more important as we age because of how neural degeneration works.

As Powers explains, "When brain cells die and synapses weaken with aging, our nouns go first, like names of people, because there's only one neural pathway connecting to that stored information. If the single neural connection to that name fades, we lose access to it. As people age, some of them learn to parallel process, to come up with synonyms to go around these roadblocks."

The complexities of dancing can give the brain a reason to build new pathways that can provide new routes to information when one of the old paths disintegrates.

"More is better. Do whatever you can to create new neural paths," Powers writes in an article on the Stanford website. "The opposite of this is taking the same old well-worn path over and over again, with habitual patterns of thinking and living."

Powers concedes that there are other ways to do this; anything that involves "split-second rapid-fire decision-making" as opposed to doing things by rote memory will help, such as taking a difficult class or learning a new language.

But Powers, who has a background in engineering, believes that a dance class is most effective. "Dancing integrates several brain functions at once kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional further increasing your neural connectivity," he writes.

Of course, it's also helping your body, too, burning anywhere from around 300 to 500 calories per hour, depending on the dance.

In its guidelines for physical activity, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention count ballroom dancing, line dancing, folk dancing and square dancing among exercises of moderate intensity.

But ballroom, square and folk dancing can also count as "vigorous" activity, so long as it's energetic. Clogging makes the vigorous list, as well.