Step up: Study says dancing may aid brain health in older adults

Greta Paulsen, director of the Sun City Poms, dances through a line of teammates during rehearsal. Paulsen, 69, said she works hard to learn new routines and feels the mental challenge keeps her mind sharp. (Photo by Saundra Wilson/Cronkite News)

SUN CITY – The high-stepping, high-kicking Sun City Poms dance before raucous crowds, from high schoolers at assemblies to families lined up along streets during parades.

The team of senior women, ranging from 55 to 84 years old, practice up to 10 hours every week.

Greta Paulsen, the director of the Sun City Poms, said being on the team has helped keep her mind sharp. The retired electrical engineer, 69, had no dance experience before moving to Sun City and joining the Poms nearly five years ago.

Ginger Price, in the foreground, waves her poms during a Sun City Poms dance rehearsal. At 84, Price stays active and belongs to three dance groups in Sun City. (Photo by Saundra Wison/Cronkite News)

“My mind has a tendency to be lazy as it is and this forces me to focus,” Paulsen said. “The biggest challenge was coordinating the hands and feet.”

Paulsen said the women have fun, but they’re also doing something healthy for their brains, according to new research.

By dancing regularly they’re slowing the brain’s aging process.

Older adults who danced regularly showed an improvement in the health of some of the white matter in their brains over six months compared to other forms of exercise, according to a new study. White matter is tissue in the brain and spinal cord that affects learning and brain functions.

The study, done by a team of researchers from Colorado State University, the University of Illinois at Urbana, Northwestern University and other higher education institutions, compared the neurological effects of various activities in a group of 174 healthy adults from 60 to 79 years old.

Most of the study participants selected lived sedentary lives. Using MRI imaging data, the researchers monitored the effects of lifestyle interventions over six months. The adults were divided into four control groups: country western dancing, walking, walking and nutritional changes, and stretching and toning. Each group participated in its designated activity over six months.

Tommie Sebring, 80, said she can see differences in her memory and physical agility compared to friends who leave more sedentary lives. (Photo by Saundra Wilson/Cronkite News)

White matter declined over the period in all of the groups but increased in the group that had been country dancing regularly. The study suggests that the combined physical, cognitive and social components of dance helped to maintain and improve brain health.

Tommie Sebring, 80, has danced with the Poms for eight years and said she can see the result compared to friends who are more sedentary.

“I can see a tremendous difference in not only their memories but in their agility,” Sebring said.

She said as she learns new routines she has to remember all of the steps and sequences, which helps her memory overall.

“Most people don’t realize I’m 80 and I don’t think I do, either,” she said.