This is your brain on fencing: How certain sports may aid the aging brain
By Emily Mullin
The two fencers pull on their mesh-front masks and face each other behind two “en garde” lines. At their coach’s signal, they raise their sabres and the practice bout begins in a flurry.
Michael DeManche, 69, is fencing his son Devin, 20, who not only has youth on his side but at 6-foot-5 also has a much longer reach.
Father and son move rapidly, advancing, retreating and attacking with precision. The skirmish continues until the score is tied at four points. Then in a flash, Devin prevails with a swift hit on his dad’s mask.
Despite their age difference, the two are well matched. Although Devin is more agile physically, Michael’s tactic for winning during their Wednesday night matches at the Royal Fencing Academy in Damascus, Md., is to outthink his son in moves and positioning. “When I’m fencing, I’m completely focused,” Michael says.
Science may be able to explain what’s going on in Michael’s aging brain when he’s on the fencing strip. A small but growing body of research suggests that fencing and other sports that require quick decision-making may improve cognition in both young and old people, and help stave off certain mental declines associated with aging.
In a study published in 2012, researchers led by Francesco Di Russo of the Foro Italico University of Rome hypothesized that sports in which participants must constantly move and adapt to changes around them might counteract age-related breakdowns in learning, memory and processing speeds. They found that fencing, “which requires fast decisions and . . . places high demands on visual attention and flexibility,” was associated with improvement of certain cognitive functions, such as attention and processing, that naturally decline with aging.