Researchers compared changes in balance and hippocampus volume in older adults age 63 – 80 who participated in either dance or exercise classes for 18 months. Subjects met twice a week for 90 minutes in the first 6 months and then once per week for the next year. Dance classes included continually changing choreography with head turns skips and hops, as well as steps like Mambo and Grapevine. Exercise classes consisted of endurance drills, strength endurance movements and flexibility training. All subjects underwent brain scans and postural control assessments as primary measures.
At study completion the researchers noticed significant increases in left hippocampal volume in both groups. The dancers, however, showed increases in other areas of the hippocampus as well.
“The hippocampus is of special interest, as this brain structure is specifically affected by normal and pathological aging, plays a role in major cognitive processes, e.g., memory and learning, and is also involved in keeping one’s balance, a function that is crucial for well-being and quality of life,” the study authors wrote. Dancers also saw superior improvements in balance scores compared with the exercise group.
So why was the dance intervention so effective at boosting hippocampal volume and balance?
Researchers concluded that, “the additional challenges involved in our dance program, namely cognitive and sensorimotor stimulation, increased extra hippocampus volume changes and additions to those attributable to physical fitness alone. It is noteworthy that other studies in elderly humans, which do not boost physical fitness but which were sensorimotor demanding, such as learning to juggle, have observed hippocampus volume increase as well.”
The study was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (2017, doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00305).