The breaking down of cerebral white matter is one of the neural changes that drives age-related declines in cognition. Researchers set out to determine if specific physical activity could result in positive neural changes in older adults.
In a recent study, researchers recruited 174 cognitively healthy older adults and randomized them into four exercise interventions: dance, walking, walking/nutrition, and stretching/toning. The dance program was designed to incorporate physical and cognitive aspects, because it involved memorizing complex choreography. Walking was designed to be brisk and supervised by the research staff, and involved frequent heart rate assessment. Walking/nutrition involved the same components of the previous intervention with the addition of beta alanine nutrition given to promote increased muscle. The active control intervention was an intervention involving stretching of the whole body. Each intervention held supervised, one-hour sessions three times a week for six months. Computerized cognitive tests, cardiorespiratory fitness, objective physical activity assessments, and MRIs were completed at least one day before the intervention onset, and then repeated after the six-month intervention.
With age there is always a decrease in white matter across most of the brain. However, this study found that white matter declined in just six months, making it the only study to detect white matter decrease in such a short period of time. There were also promising results that showed that in the dance group intervention, white matter increased in the fornix region of the brain—a part of the limbic system that deals with memory and processing speed. The success of the dance intervention might lie in its complexity. Outside of being pleasurable, it involves aerobic exercise, sensorimotor stimulation, cognitive, social, and emotional engagement. In fact, other studies have also found that dancing is a protective front against dementia and can reduce depression.
Burzynska AZ, Jiao Y, Knecht AM, et al. White matter integrity declined over 6-months, but dance intervention improved integrity of the fornix of older adults. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience (2017); 16: 9-59.