Keep dancing… it turns out it is good for the brain
Picking up choreography can
seem like a brain teaser. Interpreting which arm, which leg, which
direction even, can lead to legs and arms everywhere except for the very
position they should be in. This can be frustrating, but keep dancing,
as research suggests that learning new steps could prevent dementia.
Alanna Orpen 4 Apr 2016
In the studio by Alanna Orpen
am frequently in a dance studio, where routines and exercises are
thrown at me (and my fellow dancers). You’re expected to pick up the
steps in a matter of minutes, are set improvisation challenges, and the
choreography changes from week to week.
It is as much a mental workout as it is physical, digesting the
constant new material, but this turns out to be a good thing. At the
start of a contemporary class, the teacher announced, “Good news for us
dancers, I read today that dancing can prevent dementia.” So I thought
Dementia describes a
set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with
thinking, problem-solving or language, that are caused when the brain is
damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
According to the World Health Organization, the number of people who will be affected by neurological disorders is expected to increase in the upcoming decades.
There are issues with current surgical and pharmacological treatments,
as well as conventional rehabilitative therapies, so new therapies are
dancing can reduce the onset of dementia
Dance is seen as viable therapy because it simultaneously combines physical and cognitive stimulation, which could maximize its impact on neuroplasticity and cognition.
So far, studies have examined the effects of dance in elderly
individuals with dementia, including subjects with Alzheimer’s disease
and those with confusion, disorientation, and memory loss.
Dance is mentally stimulating
Dancing is mainly associated with physical health benefits, but
scientists have recently discovered its neurological benefits. The
complex mental coordination that dance requires activates several brain
regions: the cerebellum, the somatosensory cortex and the basal ganglia,
triggering kinaesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional responses.
This strengthens neural connections and can improve our memory.
Benefits of dance movement therapy in dementia treatment
In 2003, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found
that dancing can reduce the onset of dementia. The 21-year study of
senior citizens, aged 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein
College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute
on Aging. They measured each participant’s mental alertness as a means
of monitoring the rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers studied a range of cognitive and physical activities,
such as reading; writing; doing crossword puzzles; playing
cards; playing musical instruments; dancing; walking; tennis; swimming
and golf. Surprisingly, dance was the one activity that was good for the
mind, significantly reducing dementia risk. Regular dancing reduced the
risk of dementia by 76%, twice as much as reading. Doing crossword
puzzles at least four days a week reduced the risk by 47%, while cycling
and swimming offered no benefit at all.
dance may still be seen as recreational while its clinical value is overlooked
But, not all forms of dancing offer the same cognitive benefits.
Working on memorized sequences, might improve your performance, however
it doesn’t create new neural pathways. The theory goes that the more
pathways your brain has the easier it can access stored information and
the better your memory.
Neurologist Dr. Robert Katzman said, “Freestyle
social dancing, such as foxtrot, waltz and swing, requires constant
split-second, rapid-fire decision making, which is the key to
maintaining intelligence because it forces your brain to regularly
rewire its neural pathways, giving you greater cognitive reserve and
increased complexity of neuronal synapses.”
Building your brain’s neural complex works in much the same way as
exercise, to get fitter you have to train regularly. So, the more
dancing you do, the greater your cognitive reserve. And don’t worry
about having to attend dance classes. It’s said that you’ll benefit from just going out dancing.
Your improvisational skills on the dance floor should fire up the rapid
decision-making that’s needed to forge new neural pathways.
Another study in 2012 showed that a 10 week dance intervention
helped dementia patients over 70. It was a small pilot study of 18
subjects, where ten of the dance participants showed an improvement in
cognitive function and mood compared to the eight who did not dance.
Argentine tango, Parkinson’s Disease and future trials
Dance has also been found to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s
disease. Similarly to dementia, it is another disease where individuals
can suffer impaired mental function due to damaged neurons in the brain.
A review, published in BMC Neurology,
discusses how the Argentine Tango can improve an individual’s spatial
awareness and memory because of the postures and simple paths learnt
during the dance classes. These are then stored, remembered and used
again, but it is also important for individuals to improvise and respond
spontaneously to the music.
The field of dance research in the elderly is relatively young and continues to evolve. A study published in BMC Geriatrics,
found that a dance video game, which combined physical and cognitive
training, was more beneficial in improving walking accuracy and pace in
older adults than muscle strengthening exercises alone.
Research hoping to bolster the use of dance therapy include a trial in BMC Geriatrics. The authors will
examine whether two hours of moderate dance sessions a week will be
sufficient to increase brain growth factors supporting brain plasticity
and slow down dementia progression.
Dance and ageing research has shown its positive impact on the
neurology in healthy and dementia groups. Dance therapy could be
prescribed by physicians to improve visual perception and spatial
memory, an area commonly affected by dementia. Even so, would
traditionalists be willing to accept dance as something more than just a
hobby and trust in its clinical value? At least there’s little worry
about negative side effects.
If dancing can keep my mind healthy, as well as my body, then bring
on the fast intricate footwork along with a port de bras (carriage of
the arms) to match. I’ll see you in the studio.