Dancing, whether professionally or recreationally, requires strength, suppleness, coordination and balance. It's an enjoyable physical and mental exercise that helps you become more physically active and keeps your mind sharp. A recent study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has found dance classes can even reverse some signs of aging in the brain.

Older adults who were asked to constantly change dance routines of different genres, including Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance, experienced an increase in the hippocampus — the brain region responsible for memory and learning, along with keeping one's balance — and an improvement in balance. This is important because aging is linked with learning and memory problems, which resemble deficits from hippocampus damage. It's also the earliest and most severely affected brain structure in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's disease.

"Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity," said Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study, based at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany, in a statement.

This prompted Rehfeld and her colleagues to study which type of physical exercise was better at combating age-related brain decline in a group of elderly participants with an average age of 68. They were assigned either an 18-month weekly course of learning routines or endurance and flexibility training. The dance group was challenged with different dance routines from different genres each week, while the traditional fitness training group did repetitive exercise, such as cycling or Nordic walking.

Rehfeld explained the participants changed steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms every second week to stay in a constant learning process.

She remarks: "The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor."

These extra challenges were created so the team could study maximum anti-aging effects on the brain compared to traditional fitness training.

Overall, both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus, but the dance group also showed a significant difference in balance compared to their counterparts. Age-related mental decline is linked to balance disturbances and cognitive impairment. But physical exercise, like dancing, is able to combine aerobic fitness, sensorimotor skills and cognitive demands that lead to hippocampal volume increase and a significant increase in balance.

"I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age," said Rehfeld.

Previous research has found there's a link between dancing and preventing various forms of dementia. In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, conducted over a 21-year span, researchers noted senior citizens who danced frequently reduced their chance of developing dementia by 76 percent, almost double any other form of physical or cognitive activity included. Specifically, freestyle dancing was seen to be most effective, because it forces the brain to regularly rewire its neural pathways since it requires constant split-second and fast decision making. Moreover, it improves cognitive reserve — the mind's resistance to damage of the brain — and enhances neuronal synapses, so information can be passed along to other neurons.

Currently, Rehfeld and her colleagues are evaluating a new sensor-based system called "Jymmin" (jamming and gymnastic), which generates sounds, like melodies and rhythm, based on physical activity. Dementia patients are known to respond strongly when listening to music; this has motivated the team to combine promising aspects of physical activity and active music making in a study with dementia patients.

Cognitive decline is one of the biggest health threats in old age, with 47 million people worldwide with dementia. Dancing intervention programs can help delay the onset of the disease or slow its progression. Staying physically active can help elevate your heart rate, and increase blood flow to the brain and body, while reducing potential dementia risk factors, like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Dance classes can be a fun way to ward off physical and mental decline.

Source: Rehfeld K, Muller P, Aye N et al. Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2017.