Updated: Sep 20, 2021
Are you a Strictly Come Dancing Fan?
Is it the dancing, the music, the competition, the judges, or the glitter and glam?
Whatever your reason, did you know, if you did a bit of dancing yourself you could support your brain health, yip, reduce your risk of cognitive decline.
Brain Health: “Use it or lose it!”
Whether it’s simple forgetfulness, brain fog, brain overload or a family history of dementia, declining brain health is one of the biggest worries we have about getting older.
Women are particularly affected by dementia.
1 in 3 people in Ireland will at some stage be diagnosed with some form of dementia.
Total of just over 50,000 people now living with a dementia diagnosis in Ireland (4000 of them are under 65), 35,000 of them are women.
One of the risk factors is that as women, as we age, our ovaries start to shut down and we are producing less and less oestrogen. Oestrogen is neuroprotective, and we have that protection all our lives until we stop producing it. Less oestrogen means less protection for the brain.
So, it makes it all the more important for us to look at ways we can start to protect the brain and reduce risk of decline.
And it turns out we can get some benefits by putting on the dancing shoes.
Use it or Lose it
Exercise is important, but it’s both mental and physical exercises that we need to be thinking about when it comes to brain health!
If you love sudoku or crosswords, these are great Use it or Lose it brain training exercises, but I have to say, they are not my thing.
Learning a new language, or reigniting some prior language skills is a great tool. I use the Duo Lingo App for refreshing my Spanish.
Learning how to play a musical instrument like piano or guitar where there are sequences to learn is another tool. You don’t have to be great (but you might be the next big thing), it’s the process of learning that’s critical for reducing your risk of cognitive decline.
Puzzles, either in book or app form are great. The trick is not to worry about getting it right but practice and doing it consistently will help support the growth of new brain cells.
Singing, in a choir or informal group, means you have to learn words and patterns. Use it so you don’t lose it. And of course you also get the endorphin rush that singing brings and the longevity benefits of socialisation v loneliness.
Going back to school, learning a new skill is a great way to train the brain. Hands up who always wanted to be a car mechanic, a computer programmer, a nutritional therapist. The learning, especially if there’s an exam or assignments involved, will not only give you a second half of life career option, but protect your brain as well. Cue me. I retrained in Nutritional Therapy at 55 doing a 4-year diploma, graduated at 59 and running a new business at 60. Looking for the next thing I can learn now.
However, if you want to really ensure your brain health into old age, physical exercise is top of the toolkit when it comes to preserving cognitive function.
It used to be thought that cognitive decline was a given as we age. And furthermore, that we couldn’t grow new brain cells. But now scientists and researchers tell us the exact opposite.
You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
Yes, as we get older, our brains do behave differently – and yes, as we age, the learning of new things may take a bit longer, but critically, we still retain the ability to learn. So, you can teach an old dog new trick, that’s if they want to be taught.
If you set your mind to it, employ all the tools of the trade, dramatic improvements can be made to our brain function, no matter what age you are. The important thing is to start, now.
Physical activity, (especially aerobic exercise and lifting weights) positively affects our brain function. Research shows that even 20 minutes of exercise, improves our ability to process information and supports memory function.
Check out Chrissy Hawkins Fitness for a Free Kickstarter Workout guide and follow her on Instagram for a Free Wednesday Workout.
The Benefits of Exercise on the Brain
Engaging in exercise increases the heart rate, pumping more oxygen to our brain. Simply put, oxygen is the fuel our brain needs to function at its best.
Exercise released a bucket load of, that support the optimal environment for neurogenesis, a fancy term for the growth of brain cells.
Neuroplasticity – another one of those fancy terms, is encouraged by exercise. This is really the growth of new connections between cells in areas of our brains. So when we are trying to connect up the dots between one conversation and another story someone told us – that’s neuroplasticity. So frustrating when we can’t make the connection. There you have it, the case for exercise.
We get that rush of endorphins, that “runners high” when we exercise. this is mainly associated with intense exercise, so not the gentle dander but something that gets the heart pumping. And why is that important. A high level of endorphins ( feel-good hormones) help in lowering stress hormones.
And back to that new cell growth in the brain (the hippocampus). Exercise is known to be an antidepressant and that same affect is associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory.
So what is coming to light in all this, is that some physical exercise, along side mental exercises goes hand in hand to help improve our chances of keeping cognitive decline at bay.
Strictly speaking (pun intended) one of the most effective and protective brain supporting activities you can do is one that pairs physical exercise with a learning element. Then you have a higher impact, a win win, a two for the price of one scenario.
Cue Dancing – think Zumba, Ballroom dancing, Jiving club, Latin dance etc
With all of these, you have both a physical impact and the mental demand of learning a routine.
If you are in a group, or dancing with a partner, all the better. Studies show that regular social interaction with others can add 9 healthy years to your lifespan. So, you’ve got a 3 for one when you are dancing with someone else.
Convinced? Are you off to google your closest dance class? I think at the very least I’m going to sign up for Zumba at the gym.