Dancing has been around for a long time, and the health benefits have been touted as good physical exercise. More recently, research on the further health benefits of dancing have emphasized its role in stress reduction, increased serotonin level and social interaction. But a real breakthrough occurred in 2012, after the results of two studies found a correlation between health and dancing were published. The most recent benefit: frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter.
A major study published in the New England Journal of Medicine added to the growing evidence that mental stimulation through dancing has a protective role in preventing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Dancing also increases cognitive acuity at all ages.
Results of the 21-year Study
The 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City in conjunction with the National Institute on Aging. Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
The purpose of the study was to find out which physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental ability. The results of the study discovered that some activities had a major beneficial effect, while other activities had none.
The cognitive activities studied included reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. Physical activities such as tennis, golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework were also studied.
The surprising result of the study found that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection for developing dementia. There was one significant exception: the only physical activity to offer protection against developing dementia was frequent dancing.
The results are the following:
- Reading: 35% reduced risk
- Bicycling and swimming: 0%
- Crossword puzzles at least four days a week: 47%
- Dancing frequently: 76%
In this current study, neurologist Dr. Robert Katzman suggested that the volunteers were more resistant to the effects of dementia as a result of having greater cognitive reserve and increased complexity of neuronal synapses. Similar to a higher level of education, participation in mentally engaging activities lowers the risk of dementia by strengthening these neural connections.
In another study involving 52 healthy adults aged 63-80 years conducted by Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld of the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Germany; her colleagues were able to determine which forms of exercise are most effective for reducing the risk of dementia.
One group was required to participate in a 90 minute dancing lesson each week for 18 months, while the other group engaged in 90 minutes of strength-endurance training each week.
The researchers note that physical activity varied between each group; while the dance group were provided new routines every week, the activities of strength-endurance training were repetitive.
At study baseline and at the conclusion of the 18-month exercise interventions, each participant underwent MRI of the brain. Furthermore, the subjects sense of balance before and after intervention was evaluation using the Sensory Organization Test.
The results of the study found that both groups demonstrated an increase in hippocampal volume, but dancers showed the greatest increase.
The hippocampus is the brain region associated with learning, memory, and emotion, and it is the region commonly affected by age-related brain changes. Dr Joseph Coyle, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist explains, “The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use.”
Only dancers, however, exhibited an increase in neuronal connections in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, which is an area associated with memory formation.
The Importance of Making New Neural Synapses
As we age, brain cells die and synapses weaken resulting in difficulty recalling words and names of people because there is only one neural pathway connecting to that stored information. We lose access to that single neural pathway as the ability to recall a name fades. Parallel processing allows us to come up with synonyms to navigate these obstacles.
The complexity of our neuronal synapses becomes imperative, as more is better. The importance of creating new neural pathways is critical in order to avoid using habitual patterns of thinking and living. The old adage of “use it or lose it” not only applies to muscular strength and endurance but also our brains.
By maintaining and generating new neuronal pathways, we build our cognitive reserve. New learning which challenges the mind stimulates the connectivity of the brain by generating the need for new pathways. Enrolling in a new class or taking on a challenging project creates a greater need for new neural pathways.
A dance class can be even more effective as it integrates several brain functions simultaneously; kinesthetic, rational, musical, social and emotional further increasing neuronal connectivity. Dancing requires split-second rapid fire decision making, especially freestyle ballroom dancing, as opposed to rote memory dance sequences.
The Benefits of Free-Style Ballroom for Optimal Neuroplasticity
The three different types of ballroom dancing include:
- Social- spontaneous, adaptive, friendly, enjoyment and interaction with a partner
- Competitive: precision and correct form are judged
- Exhibition: entertainment for an audience
Not all forms of dancing will produce the same benefit as free-style ballroom dancing, especially if they only address style, or memorized sequences. Making as many split-second decisions as possible is critical in maintaining cognitive abilities. Free-style social dancing requires a great deal of split-second decision making in both the Lead and Follow roles.
Free-style ballroom dancing is flexible and adaptive. Mistakes become a learning opportunity, rather than viewed in a negative way. Spontaneous leading and following both involve entering a flow state. Both leading and following benefit from a highly active attention to possibilities. The attainment of highly active attention to possibilities and flexibility enhance dancers’ relationships with others, and in everyday life.
The study published in The New England Journal of Medicine noted that seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles only once weekly. When it comes to dancing, more is better. And dance as much as possible.
As baby boomers grow in numbers, and dementia on the rise it’s imperative to promote enjoyable and cost effective activities to reduce the risk. Many seniors have enjoyed ballroom dancing throughout their lives, sadly with the death of a spouse or a hip fracture, many of these activities cease. The challenge to keep seniors in the groove is upon us.
Powers, Richard: Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter, Longer, July 30, 2010. http://socialdance.stanford.edu/syllabi/htm
The Alzheimer’s Project Journal: Ballroom Dancing and Alzheimer’s-Can Dancing Make You Smarter? An Investigation on Its Relationship with Hippocampal Volume and Memory Performance in Older Adults. http://the alzheimer’sproject.org/2014/12/ballroom-dancing-and-alzheimer’s
Verghese, Joe, MD: Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly, New England Journal of Medicine, 6/19/2003
Whiteman, Honor: Dancing may help to combat brain aging, Medical News Today, 08/29/17. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles319181.php