In the ongoing quest to understand how exercise can keep aging brains young, a new study has introduced a surprising twist: Social dancing — like country line dancing — might protect our aging brains better than activities like walking or stretching.

The research, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, split 174 healthy people in their 60s and 70s into three groups. One group walked briskly for an hour three times a week, another group did gentle stretching and balance training for the same amount of time and the last group “practiced increasingly intricate country-dance choreography,” according this New York Times piece about the findings.

Most of the participants were sedentary prior to the study, and all were tested for both mental and physical fitness at the beginning and end of the six-month study period. Researchers used M.R.I.’s to scan the brains of the participants and tested their processing speed — one of the hallmarks in measuring brain decline. As NYT writer Gretchen Reynolds explains, scientists suspect that processing speed decline is related to a thinning of white matter, the “wiring” of our brain that sends messages via neurons. The lightening fast speeds these messages travel at when we’re young “stutter and slow” as we get older and our white matter thins.

After six months, all of the participants showed some thinning of white matter, according to the NYT, but they also performed better on thinking tests, supporting previous research about the benefits of movement on the aging brain. The interesting difference is that the dancers were the only group to show “actual improvement in the health of some of the white matter in their brains,” specifically, a part of the brain called the fornix that’s involved in processing and memory.

As Reynolds suggests, the unique demands of social, choreographed dancing may make it “unusually potent at slowing some of the changes” in our brain that happen with age.

“The message is that we should try not to be sedentary,” Agnieszka Burzynska, the study’s lead author and a professor at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, told Reynolds. Any kind of movement seems to be beneficial in terms of protecting our aging brains and bodies, but it might be worth grabbing a partner and kicking up your heels for an added boost.

Read more on NYT.

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