The researchers invited 62 healthy elderly volunteers aged 63–80 years to join the study and eventually chose 52 who met their inclusion criteria. They were then randomly assigned to the experimental dance group and the control sport group.
The content of the dance classes induced a permanent learning situation with constantly changing choreographies, which participants had to memorize accurately.
The program for the sport group included endurance training, strength-endurance training, and flexibility training.
Both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus region of the brain, the area of the brain specifically prone to age-related decline. It also plays a key role in memory and learning, as well as keeping one’s balance. But only participants in the dance group showed volume increases in more subfields of the left hippocampus and only dancing led to an increase in one subfield of the right hippocampus, namely the subiculum.
While scientists know that physical exercise can combat age-related brain decline, this study shows that dancing, specifically continuously changing dance routines and choreography, is superior to repetitive exercise like cycling or walking.
Dr Rehfeld explains, “We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance). Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”
Dr Rehfeld and her colleagues are building on this research to develop new fitness programs that can have the maximum anti-aging effects on the brain.