Published on: December 28, 2017
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Dancing gets the blood pumping! It’s fun, usually social, and oftentimes you’re learning something new – an original move, where to place your feet to perform a particular step, or how to twirl your partner around. Better still, research over the last fifteen years is discovering that dancing can also be beneficial for your brain.
The first influential study that showed dancing’s advantageous effects on the brain appeared in a 2003 issue of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers looked at how particular leisure activities impacted on a person’s risk of dementia. Subjects were Americans living in the Bronx over the age of 75. They were relatively healthy and did not have dementia at the start of the study period. Researchers looked at 17 leisure activities, including those deemed “cognitive” like doing crosswords, playing board games, and those deemed “physical,” which included playing golf, babysitting, swimming, riding a bike, or dancing. How often people engaged in the leisure activities was also taken into account. Throughout the course of the study, some participants developed Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, or other types of dementia.
What was very interesting about the results, though, was that “dancing was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia.” On the cognitive side, “reading, playing board games, and playing musical instruments were associated with a lower risk of dementia,” according to the study’s findings. In general, as time spent doing leisure activities increased, risk of dementia decreased (so the more time spent, the better). While the New England Journal of Medicine study doesn’t specify precisely why dancing performed better than other physical activities when it comes to reducing a person’s dementia risk, neurologists have posited that it may be due to the fact that when we’re dancing our brains are engaged in learning, we are enlisting the neuroplasticity – the “capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behaviour in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica – of the brain to positive effect.
More recent research published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in March 2017 expands on how dancing might bolster a part of the brain that is partly responsible for memory, the fornix. According to a different article in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience from 2011 called “Alzheimer’s Disease and the Fornix,” the fornix – a part of our brain’s white matter – is “one of the most important anatomical structures related to memory,” and changes in the fornix can be indicative of “future conversion from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and even from cognitively normal individuals to AD.” How much the fornix has been altered seems to be linked to “the degree of memory impairment,” the researchers argue, which means that what’s going on with the fornix is quickly becoming a viable indicator of dementia risk.
The new research has now made a link between the fornix’s integrity and dancing – and it’s exciting. Dr. Aga Burzynska, Director of the Brain Laboratory and an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Colorado State University, and a team of other researchers studied healthy adults aged between 60 and 79. Participants were separated into four groups: one walked for exercise, another walked and engaged in nutrition education, another did stretching, and the last engaged in dance. The dance group worked with knowledgeable dance instructors and engaged in the Contra (a kind of folk dance) and English Country dancing disciplines.
Before and after the six-month intervention period, researchers looked at MRI scans and found that only in the dancing group did the integrity of the fornix improve. Burzynska is quick to note, though, that all groups experienced decline in some brain regions – 20 regions were measured in all – meaning that even those in the dancing group experienced some brain decline. But what was fascinating for researchers was that the dancing group was the only group where the integrity of the fornix actually increased. Because of the fornix’s established link to memory and the hippocampus (which is also important for long-term memory and emotion), but also its connection to what researchers call “processing speed” – which Burzynska says is “how fast we process information” – an increase in its integrity via dancing is a compelling finding indeed.
Overall, Burzynska and the research team found that engaging in any moderate to vigorous physical activity coupled with less time engaged in sedentary activities was better for brain health. But why do researchers think the dancing group was the only one that showed improvement in the fornix region? “Dance is more of an immersive experience,” says Burzynska, there are “more endorphins, the participants also gain aerobic fitness, but they also have to perform cognitive exercise. In the English Country dance they have to remember their positions, they had to memorize, and over the six months [the moves were] getting more and more difficult.” What’s more, she says, there is “the social aspect of dancing,” though all participants in the study reported “decreased loneliness and improved social support.” Every culture has dance, says Burzynska, and traditional dancing is often still practiced when people get older. “Dancing is a social, cognitive, and physical activity, so it provides this nice mix.”
There have been other interesting findings about dancing’s impact on the brain in the last few years. If you’ve ever experienced vertigo – dizziness, sometimes coupled with nausea – you know the awful feeling. Dancing may go some way to remedy that problem. Research published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in 2015 found that the brains of dancers – who, in ballet, often have to spin around several times when doing pirouettes – have adapted to the rotations that would normally cause them to become dizzy. Researchers compared female ballet dancers to fit female non-dancers and the MRI scans of dancer’s brains showed that all of that dance training actually changed parts of their brains – the cerebellum, for example, an element of the brain linked with dizziness – was smaller in dancers. While researchers don’t know how this finding will help non-dancers reduce dizziness just yet, it is still interesting because it builds on other research that notes dancing’s quantifiable effect on the brain.
Various other studies have made a connection between dancing and mood enhancement. Researchers from Poland found that recreational ballroom dancers (vs. competitive ballroom dancers) enjoyed a boost in mood after dancing, suggesting that when dancing is done for fun the benefits to mood are greater. In a Journal of Health Psychology paper, researchers found that elderly participants with or without Parkinson’s disease experienced “an overall reduction in total mood disturbance and a specific reduction in anger,” and people who were depressed at the start of the study experienced less fatigue after 10 weeks of dancing. Another paper published in AIMS Medical Science by researchers out of Columbia University found that engaging in structured dance classes twice a week improved the symptoms of depression in older adults. Specifically, the study’s authors say that “dance therapy appears to confer beneficial mood changes on the older population, and without the damaging side effects of medications.” While researchers can be cautious about recommending dance as therapy since clinical trials haven’t yet been done, the authors of the depression study do say “it seems reasonably safe to encourage older adults who have never thought about practicing dance to consider doing so.” Perhaps it is time to dust off your dancing shoes and find a dance class in your area.
What’s That Dance?
Ready to give dance classes a try? Here’s a primer on some of the most popular.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER – V5
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