A lifelong affair

Whether they sign up for dance instruction or a lecture series, seniors can benefit from heading back to class

You make sure to get your steps in everyday, have a workout buddy and a membership to the gym. But Dr. Antoine Hakim wants you to exercise the muscle between your ears as well.

“Treat your brain like you would any muscle,” says Hakim, founding director of Neuroscience Research at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and professor of neurology at the University of Ottawa. “If one of your muscles was weakened, you’d do exercises to strengthen it.  Do the same for your brain—make it learn and force it to remember.”

Dr. Antoine Hakim. Photo Courtesy Dr. Antoine Hakim

Make sure there is variety in your learning. Hakim says doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku is fine, but doing it over and over doesn’t help your brain learn. It also limits which parts of your brain are being stimulated. “Learning something new, like a language, or a musical instrument or even memorizing a poem can help strengthen your memory,” says Hakim.

If a person were to stop walking, the muscles would weaken. Likewise, someone who were to stop learning would weaken their memory functions. “Keeping learning and staying curious is the only antidote to becoming cognitively impaired,” Hakim says. 

Staying physically active is key as well. “Memory does rely on physical activity and good cardio function,” he says, “so maybe take up dancing or an aerobics class where you have to remember the moves.” Hakim’s book, “Save Your Mind: Seven Rules to Avoid Dementia” includes ideas to preserve good memory function. He points out that many universities offer free courses for seniors—a great way to not only learn something new, but stimulate your brain as well.

“Do anything challenging later in life to stay cognitively young,” says John Anderson Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science and Canada research chair in Cognition and Wellness at Carleton University. “And not just one thing, but a whole lifestyle approach, including physical activity and cognitive training.”

John Anderson. Photo Courtesy John Anderson

For Anderson, aging well is the objective and if you’ve been a couch potato after retirement, note that you can still turn things around, but that it will take more effort. “We know that learning and novelty help you build cognitive reserve,” says Anderson. Being socially active and engaged will also help diminish any decline.

The Lifelong Learning Program offered at Carleton University offers both the brain challenge of learning a new subject and social engagement. “Our non-credit offerings have something for everyone,” says Samantha Litwinczuk, acting program coordinator of the Lifelong Learning Program. “It’s a great way to get out and meet like-minded people and learn about nature, art, music, politics or science.” The Lifelong Learning Program’s latest offering is Neurocognitive Aging: How Cognitive Abilities Change over the Lifespan.

Samantha Litwinczuk. Photo Courtesy Samantha Litwinczuk

There are no prerequisites for lecture and workshop series, and anyone can pick up and follow along either in person or online. “We’re just in the planning stages for our fall 2023 session and the favourites in the series do fill up quickly,” says Litwinczuk. She suggests visiting Carleton’s website and joining the mailing list to get the latest updates on offerings, schedules and registration dates.  

Anderson says that if he had to pick one thing to keep cognitively and physically fit, he’d take up dancing. “You’ve got both movement and the challenge of remembering steps and it’s social,” he says.

Dr. Sarah Kenny agrees that dancing is one of the best activities for seniors. “We’re just starting our third research project on what is it about dancing that is good for us,” says Kenny, an associate professor in the faculties of Kinesiology and Arts at the University of Calgary. “Dancing is about physical literacy; it’s about participating and the sense of confidence you get from movement.” There is also ongoing research in the medical field related to balance, gait and walking and how that improves your quality of life.

Dr. Sarah Kenny. Photo Courtesy Dr. Sarah Kenny

“The idea of dancing being a good exercise for your brain is not a new concept,” says Krista White, who completed her masters of arts degree in sociology with a focus on the sociology of dance. “I use the Brain Dance and brain-compatible dance methodologies that [were] created by Anne Green Gilbert in 2000 in my community dance classes.”

Krista White. Photo Courtesy Krista White

The exercises focus on breathing, tactile stimulation, spinal movements, right and left body patterns, and crossing the midline—patterns that help excite the brain. “Yes, there is repetition, but those slight changes make your brain pay attention,” says White. “And the movements are similar to the patterns babies experience in their first year.”

Vanessa Paglione’s thesis explores the role of dance in successful aging. “It was incredible how social the community dance classes became,” says Paglione, an MSc graduate from the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Calgary and a dance educator. “Some people met neighbours from their own community, often someone who lived close by, and they’d strike up a friendship.” Paglione says the group also watched out for each other and if someone didn’t show up for dance class, they’d check to make sure they were OK. “The music part of the classes was important as well,” says Paglione. “It’s surprising the connections and memories we have related to music.”

The bottom line, Kenny says, is that dancing is fun. “Dancing is good for brain health and if it can put a smile on your face, even better.”