Is Dancing a Way To Beat Alzheimer's?
By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT
Is Dancing a Way To Beat Alzheimer's?
By Sharon Puszko, PhD, LMT
We all know that dance is fun. Even those of us with two proverbial "left feet" have a hard time resisting the universal foot-tap or leg-shake when certain music comes on. As it turns out, that involuntary physical response to music is deeply rooted in our evolution as human beings. Examining the relationship between music and dance takes us back to the beginning of both. Researchers today believe that dance began as an early form of communicating, before our vocal chords were sophisticated enough to produce any type of language. In its earliest form, "dance" consisted of hand clapping and foot-stomping, to create a pattern or rhythm. People began attaching things to their arms or legs (beads, shells) that made noise when they moved to help keep tempo and voila! music was born. Of course, it wasn't that simple or quick, but the point I am trying to make is that music and dance have been instrumental to the evolution of our species. Our emotional and physical response to both are not things we should fight or restrain, but rather embrace as a necessary and healthy element of who we are. In addition to making us feel good or keeping us active, examining the science of dance can also help us as practitioners.
An article in Scientific American caught my attention when researching this topic, because it discussed what happens in the brain when people are dancing, or observing dance. A team of researchers at University College London conducted a study to examine the brain activity in dancers observing others dance. In particular, they wanted to know if the brain would show a difference in activity when the dancer watched their own specialty and when they watched another form of dance. For example, would the brain of a tap dancer react differently when that person watches someone else tap dancing, versus someone else break-dancing. According to their results: "Investigators have found that when people watch simple actions, areas in the premotor cortex involved in performing those actions switch on, suggesting that we mentally rehearse what we see - a practice that might help us learn and understand new movements. Researchers are examining on how widely humans rely on such imitation circuits. The ability to rehearse a movement in your mind is indeed vital to learning motor skills."
Therefore, the brain of tap dancers watching someone tap reacts differently than when they watch someone break-dance, because tap is what their body and brain has spent the most time learning. It would be helpful to take the results of this study and apply them to massage therapy, since it is also a so-called motor skill. In essence, when we observe someone else giving a massage, we are unconsciously rehearsing the moves in our mind. While actually practicing massage is the best way to teach and learn, this provides evidence that observation also is a valid and useful teaching tool.
Speaking of learning, I came across an article that spoke about the evidence that dancing helps protect against dementia and Alzheimer's Disease. In this study, researchers wanted to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity . They had seniors aged 75 and older participate in certain activities (reading, doing crossword puzzles, bicycling, swimming, golfing and dancing), and measured the reduced risk of dementia these activities produced. The results were surprising: bicycling, golf and swimming offered no protection, the mental activities offered minimum protection, and dance offered the greatest protection of all. They theorize that because dancing - in particular, the freestyle social dancing most seniors participate in - requires rapid-fire, split-decision making skills, it increases our cognitive reserve and builds new neural pathways.
By increasing the number of neural pathways, we are providing our brain with multiple ways to access information, instead of just one way. The key finding here was that teaching yourself how to do anything differently, or learning anything new - whether or not it be dance - helps build these neural pathways, which in the long run, will keep your mind more healthy. I found it fascinating that dancing, an activity that is so much fun, not only makes you physically more healthy, but can also make your smarter.
Another article discussed the theory that dance can serve as a type of falls-prevention tool among the elderly. The results of one study conducted in Italy concluded that an exercise program consisting of dance improved balance among the elderly, which ultimately can help reduce the number of age-related falls. I do not think I need to spend much more time discussing the physical benefits of dancing. We all know it is a fun way to exercise and can help lower blood pressure, improve coordination and balance, lower bad cholesterol levels, and help lower the risk of coronary heart disease. However, did you know that dancing can provide an alternative to the monotony of weight lifting? According to the American Council on Exercise, in addition to being an aerobic activity, dancing is also a weight-bearing sport, with your body weight serving as the load. Therefore, you can salsa or line dance, and build bone density at the same time!
There are psychological benefits to dancing, too. "Engaging in regular physical activity, like dancing, is an important component of overall health and well-being - including psychological health. We know that physical activity helps to alleviate some of the physiological symptoms of depression and the benefits of exercise can help combat the negative impacts of stress. In fact, research has proven that dancing can act as a natural anti-depressant. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter related to mood, and dance has been found to raise serotonin levels in people with depression, which is what anti-depressants are designed to do," said Dr. John Stachula, a professor of psychology at St. Ambrose University. "It can be especially important for people suffering from isolation or loneliness because it also creates a venue for interaction with others because of the intrinsically social nature of dance. This is why it is both a popular and beneficial activity among singles or the elderly: it provides that social connection we desire, and need, to live healthy, satisfying lives." These statements bring me back to the theory that dance and music evolved as an early form of language. Maybe this is why our brain responds so strongly to dance; because we have been hard-wired to associate it with communication and expression for thousands of years.
Whether your preference be tango, tap or line dancing, if you enjoy it, do it. It will tone your body and mind. In the long run, dancing will help you more than you realize, so keep it up as long as you can. And if you wake up sore after a night out dancing, just call one of your colleagues to give you a massage!