Previous research has shown that learning and memorizing choreographed dance routines or tapping your fingers to musical beats presents unique challenges that promote neural activity and functional connectivity between multiple brain regions.
The authors of a 2016 study on the neural benefits of dancing, published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology. concluded:
"Sport dancers had increased body intelligence sensitivity compared with matched controls. In addition, the characteristics of dance, including physical movement in accordance with rhythm perception, might be associated with increased brain activity in the somatosensory and rhythm perception networks."
Another study, from 2014, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan participants' brains as they tapped their fingers to a beat, while listening to previously unheard songs with drum breaks that created changes in musical rhythm. Notably, the drum breaks within each song activated the left cerebellum, the right inferior frontal gyrus (RIFG), and the superior temporal gyri (STG) bilaterally. The researchers speculate that these brain areas may be recruited during rhythmic musical engagement as part of a predictive feed-forward control that involves the cerebellum and cortical areas. These findings were published in the journal Neuroscience.
Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the recent dance study from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, said in a statement:
“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity. 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. In comparison, it was only dancing that lead to noticeable
behavioral changes in terms of improved balance."
The researchers hypothesize that the improvements in balance may be linked to the complexity of coordinating foot steps, arm patterns, along with speed and rhythm changes that are involved with learning a mixed genre of dance styles that included Line Dancing, Jazz, Square, and Latin-American, all of which were part of the 18-month dancing seminar. Additionally, study participants were asked to perform specific dance routines in recitals without any cues from the instructor. The added challenge of pushing beyond one's comfort zone during these performances may have accounted for some of the specific hippocampal benefits observed in the dancing group.
The multidisciplinary research team in Magdeburg, Germany is adapting their neuroscience-based findings to create fitness programs that incorporate dance routines and music therapy in an effort to maximize the anti-aging brain benefits of physical activity. “Dementia patients react strongly when listening to music," Rehfeld said. "We want to combine the promising aspects of physical activity and active music making in a feasibility study with dementia patients."
The Bee Gees Were Right: You Should Be Dancing
Rehfeld leaves us with some practical advice that might inspire you to get down, boogie oogie oogie till you just can't boogie no more:
"I believe that everybody would like to live an independent and healthy life, for as long as possible. Physical activity is one of the lifestyle factors that can contribute to this, counteracting several risk factors and slowing down age-related decline. I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age."