Deep in your brain is a small, wishbone-shaped cluster of nerve cell connections that makes a big difference in how well your brain and memory function.
You’ve probably never heard about this part of the brain.
It’s called the fornix, and it’s one of the first sets of brain cells to go bad when your memory is in danger of succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
But there is an easy way to improve your chances of keeping the fornix intact. Which I’ll get to in a moment.
Messages in the Brain
The fornix is important for brain function because it consists of tissue that carries electrical signals from the hippocampus – the brain’s memory center – to other parts of the brain. The fornix consists of what is called white matter – bundles of the brain’s axons which represent the brain’s wiring system.
A study at the University of California looked at the brains of healthy seniors who had no memory issues. The researchers found that the only difference between those who, in later years, suffered memory and cognitive problems and those who stayed brain-healthy were alterations in the fornix. These changes took place before any differences in intellectual abilities were evident.1
“We found that if you looked at various brain factors there was one — and only one — that seemed to be predictive of whether a person would have cognitive decline, and that was the degradation of the fornix,” says researcher Evan Fletcher, who is with the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the University of California, Davis.
How to Fix Your Fornix
Now, when I tell you the one method researchers have found that you can use to protect your fornix, you’ll probably be as surprised as I was:
Take a dance class.
A study at Colorado State University demonstrates that when you take part in a dance class with a group, you can strengthen the function and structure of the white matter in your brain.2
The researchers believe it has these benefits because dance classes combine exercise, social interactions and learning new motor skills – new dance steps and movements.
The study involved 174 people in their 60s and 70s who got together three times a week for six months at a gym. The researchers divided these folks into four groups. One group performed brisk walking. Another group did the walking and also took a dietary supplement. The third group did stretching and balancing exercises.
The fourth group learned new dances from dance instructors and choreographers. They took part in group dancing. The learning sessions, which each lasted an hour, included line dancing and square dancing.
At the beginning of the study and after six months, the researchers examined everybody’s brains. They were shocked at how much deterioration the white matter had undergone in the oldest members of the group who stretched but didn’t do aerobic exercise.
The scientists found that, to some degree, the people who did brisk walking slowed the breakdown of their white matter.
But only one group significantly improved the white matter in the fornix – the dancers. The added mental challenges involved in the dance lessons – along with the exercise and social activities – all added up to brain circuitry benefits.
So don’t be a wallflower, say these researchers. And I agree with them. Embrace enjoyable experiences like dancing to enhance your social life and your thinking abilities.
A popular song says, “I hope you dance.” Take those words to heart.