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Exercise (Even Dancing) Can Improve Brain Health as You Age

Mounting evidence shows that regular exercise, including activities such as brisk walking, dancing and other routines that many older adults can undertake, provides brain health benefits.

Recent studies have even shown that exercise can diminish symptoms of dementia by targeting parts of the brain that declines with age.

In one study, researchers looked at two groups of people with an average age of 68. After more than four months of learning dance routines, or endurance and flexibility training, both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus region of the brain — the area associated with memory, according to the study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience [1]. This is also the part of the brain mostly linked to age-related decline and affected by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s, which is now the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, is the most common cause of dementia. It currently affects an estimated 5.5 million adults in the United States, and is expected to affect nearly 14 million U.S. adults aged 65 years or older by 2050. Deaths caused by Alzheimer’s disease surged by 55 percent from 1999 through 2014, according to a report released last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The Benefits of Dancing
There are many benefits of taking regular dance classes that can ease the symptoms of dementia, and possibly slow down its development, says Jose Vazquez, M.D., [2] internal medicine physician with Baptist Health Primary Care [3].

“Dance helps, not just because it improves balance, but when you are learning new dance steps, it is stimulating parts of the brain that helps with learning,” Dr.Vazquez says. “It also increases your social interactions and all of that may help slow down or prevent the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s.”

Previous research has shown that physical exercise can fight age-related brain decline, but few until now has has shown which type of exercise can be better than another.

“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity,” said Kathrin Rehfeld, M.D., lead author of the study, based at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Magdeburg, Germany, in a statement. “In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age.

Balance Problems Improved
While endurance training — including brisk walking or moderate jogging — provides many heart-related and other benefits, it was dancing that lead to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance, Dr. Rehfeld wrote. Behavioral studies have already shown evidence of better performance in balance and memorytasks in elderly dancers. The dance training focused on “elementary longitudinal turns, head-spins, shifts of center of gravity (COG), single-leg stances, skips and hops, different steps like chassée, mambo, cha cha, grapevine, jazz square to challenge the balance system,” the study says.

Balance problems and dizziness are a common complaint among millions of Americans. It’s also one of the top reasons that people over age 75 see their doctor. Balance issues can be substantially improved through physical therapy and exercise.

A separate study, published May 30 in the journal Neurology: Clinical Practice, [4] came to similar conclusions about exercise and brain health. Based on reviews of 98 randomized controlled trials, researchers from Brazil, Spain, and the U.S. found that people started to show some improvement in brain function after a minimum of 52 hours of exercise. Their findings were the same for those with cognitive impairment, as well as those with normal brain function. The exercise programs reviewed lasted about six months on average. The types of exercise involved were aerobic, resistance (strength) training, mind–body exercises, or combinations of these routines.

Exercise Guidelines for Adults 65 and Older
If you are 65 years of age or older, are generally fit and have no limiting health conditions, you can follow these guidelines for staying fit, according to the CDC: