Jan Blalock, Fitness & Group Exercise Director
There is growing evidence that stimulating one’s mind by dancing can ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit. Dancing also increases cognitive acuity at all ages.
Dancing improves brain function on a variety of levels. Through regular aerobic exercise that incorporates some type of dance at least once a week, anyone can maximize his or her brain function by blending cerebral and cognitive thought processes with muscle memory and proprioception.
In a 21-year study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, senior citizens aged 75 and older performed both physical and cognitive recreational activities to see whether any of these activities benefited mental acuity. Included were cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards, and playing musical instruments. Additionally, they studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise, and doing housework.
In this study, the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing! Of course, there are many important health benefits to other physical activities, but dancing is unique in offering mental benefits as well. Here are other results:
- Reading: 35% reduced risk of dementia
- Bicycling & swimming: 0%
- Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week: 47%
- Playing golf: 0%
- Dancing frequently: 76%!
What could cause these significant cognitive benefits? As Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Coyle explains in an accompanying commentary, “The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use.” Our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways as needed. If it doesn’t need to, then it won’t. Learning new steps and creating new patterns creates new neural pathways, where repetitive, familiar movement and activities do not. Dancing integrates several brain functions at once—kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional—further increasing your neural connectivity.
The study made another important suggestion: do it often. Seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week. Similarly, dancing four times a week will provide more protection (and fun!) than once per week. Try the many dance classes we offer here at the club: Zumba, Rhythmic Core, NIA. Take up ballroom dancing, or just put on music and make up new moves of your own! Doctor’s orders!