Dancing for brain health


At 75, Shirley wants to maintain her mental acuity for as long as possible. That’s why she doesn’t spend her Wednesday and Friday nights playing Scrabble or Sudoku like some of her friends at the retirement community. Instead, she puts on her dancing shoes and heads to the community center to learn the tango, the cha-cha or a Viennese waltz. By dancing, Shirley’s keeping not only her body in shape, but also her brain!

Challenges Your Neurons

Physical activity, in general, is good for your brain, but dancing is more effective than say walking on a treadmill or swimming because there’s much more thinking involved. When you dance, you have to learn the steps, react to your partner’s movements and make split-second decisions. And, in turn, this brain work is helping you forge brand-new neural pathways to replace old pathways that have weakened from age.

“It (dancing) integrates several brain functions at once – kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional – further increasing your neural connectivity,” said Richard Powers, a social and historic dance instructor at Stanford University, in a New York Times article.

The Proof Is in the Polka
In a German study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, seniors were divided into two groups. For 18 months, one group participated in a dance program, which required them to learn new dances, while the other group engaged in aerobic exercise, which did not require learning anything new. At the end of that year and a half, both groups experienced an increase in the volume of the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning, long-term memory and balance. However, the dancers saw increases in parts of the hippocampus that were virtually unchanged in those engaging in fitness alone. These increases resulted primarily in improvements in balance among the dancing participants.

Decreases Dementia Risk

Another study showed that dancing could also help stave off memory loss. In this 21-year study conducted at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of how various regular activities impact risk of dementia, researchers pitted traditional brain activities, such as crosswords or reading, against several physical activities including dancing. Dance was the hands-down winner, reducing dementia risk by 76 percent compared to 47 percent for crosswords. Bicycling and golfing had no effect at all on dementia risk.

Makes You Happy

Last but not least, dancing makes you feel joyful. (We dare you not to smile when you dance!) That’s because the music you’re dancing to, and the dancing itself, causes your brain to release certain chemicals – dopamine and serotonin among them – which make you feel happy, socially connected and almost invincible to pain and fatigue. Dance/movement therapy has even proven to be an effective treatment for depression, which can wreak havoc on your cognitive abilities.

So, what are you waiting for? Turn on your favorite music, move the coffee table out of the way, and boogie, bop or bunny hop to keep your brain healthy!

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