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A dance a day keeps the doctor away:
How dancing can help keep you physically fit and mentally strong!

- Robert Caratun

We all know the feeling -- a catchy song plays on the radio, and as the melody streams out of the speakers, one can all but struggle not to move some part of their body to the rhythm. Humans have a deep connection to music, and one way we play out that connection, is by moving our bodies in response to that music; otherwise known as dancing. Dancing can be a fun and exciting pastime. However, very few understand dancing for what it really is; a powerful tool in the fight against physical and cognitive (brain) declines due to aging, and a way to potentially help keep dementia and Alzheimer’s at bay!
Regular dancing has been shown by researchers to have significant effects on improving physical and cognitive abilities in older adults compared to those that do not dance and, as a result, may allow senior citizens to remain independent and living healthier for longer! In this article, we will describe some past research that has shown dancing to be a helpful tool in facilitating successful aging, and how you can use this information to help you in your daily life.


The proof is in the pudding!
One landmark study that showed dancing’s benefits in old age was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. This study lasted a total of 21-years, and studied seniors that were 75 years and older. Their goal was to determine which activities (cognitive or physical) in old age enhanced mental acuity. They measured mental acuity in seniors by determining rates of dementia. (If rates of dementia were lower, they would conclude that mental acuity was higher, and vice versa). Their conclusions were that some activities are associated with decreased dementia rates, while others were associated with no effect. The results will astound you. Some cognitive activities did have an effect on reducing dementia: reading was associated with a 35% reduced risk of dementia, and doing crossword puzzles at least 4 days a week was associated with a 47 reduced risk of dementia. Almost all the physical activities had no effect, except for one. The only physical activity that did have an effect was dancing, with a 76% reduced risk of dementia. This was the greatest risk reduction found as a result of any activity in this study, whether cognitive or physical!


The power of ‘Neuroplasticity’
Why did the individuals that danced in this study experience such beneficial gains in their mental acuity? In the study, neurologist Dr.Robert Katzman suggested that these subjects were less susceptible to Alzheimer’s’ and dementia because they had greater cognitive reserves and increased complexity of neuronal synapses. Said another way, the subjects that danced were exercising their brains, as well as their bodies. The more they had to use their brains in order to dance, the more their brains had to adapt, and strengthen. This effectively made their brains ‘stronger’, and more resilient to age-related dementia.


Does the ‘kind’ of dancing matter?
Yes. Not all forms of dancing will ‘exercise’ both the brain and the body effectively. In the following paragraphs we will make a distinction between dancing with a partner, and without one.
With a Partner: Unfortunately, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine study did not include side-by-side comparisons of the different kinds of dancing that the participants undertook. However, based on the conclusions of Dr.Robert Katzman, we can make some suggestions:
• Any form of dancing that requires split-second decision making will be beneficial. This will further stimulate and ‘exercise’ the brain, thereby, improving cognitive resources in the long run.
• Dancing that involves spontaneity is better than just memorizing sequences, and constantly performing the same sequence from rote memory. This is not to say that memorizing sequences does not confer benefits. Memorized sequences inevitably play an important role in dance, however, the more spontaneity the brain has to deal with, the more stimulated it will be (and the stronger it will get).
• The types of dancing performed in the study included freestyle social dancing: basic foxtrot, swing, waltz, and some latin (salsa, rumba). Any of these, in addition to any other dances that involve steps to learn will suffice!


Without a Partner: If you do not have a partner you can train with, my first suggestion would be to join a dance studio or community center where you could be paired up with a partner. While we will not touch on the social aspect of dancing in this article, its importance in helping with successful aging is undeniable. Social connections play an extremely important role in aging! If you would prefer to dance alone however, there are programs that cater specifically to single older adults. One example is Agilando. This is a 1-hour dance program that caters specifically to older adults, and involves copying movements performed by the instructor to music. In one study by Kattenstroth and colleagues, after six months of Agilando (only 1 hour per week!,subjects had increased physical and cognitive abilities compared to a group who did not dance during that period. This was only after six months of Agilando! If Agilando is not provided in your area, you can search out other line-dancing clubs. As long as the dancing involves you learning new steps, trying new movements, and maintains a level of spontaneity, it will likely benefit you.


How does dancing compare to other interventions?
There are many different ways with which to measure interventions that are geared towards preventing age-related cognitive decline. One method is to assess the amount of ‘transfer’ that individuals experience. Transfer is defined as the amount of improvement you can get in areas unrelated to dancing, after training with dancing. If an activity has very little transfer, then excelling at a particular activity will not confer benefits to other areas of your life. If an activity has a lot of transfer, then the skills learned in that activity will confer benefits to many other areas of your life. Fortunately, dancing has excellent transfer. After training with dancing, individuals experience benefits in both physical and cognitive domains. It has also been suggested that there may be additional benefits in both psychological and emotional measures of well-being, although researchers have not yet tested these specifically.


Another way to measure an intervention is to determine the training efficiency and sustainability. Efficiency refers to the question of how much you need to train before you experience measurable improvement. Dancing scores quite high in this regard, as was demonstrated by the 6-month intervention study by Kattenstroth and colleagues. These individuals experienced beneficial cognitive and physical effects after practicing for only 1-hour a week for 6 months! Sustainability refers to how long it takes for benefits to diminish if you cease training. This has not been specifically studied in dancing, so we currently don’t know the answer. The safe bet is to keep dancing, as this will mean you continue to exercise your brain and body!


The final way to measure an intervention we will discuss is the Impact on Quality of Life. Dancing again scores highly in this area, as I consider it a multimodal intervention. This means that it involves several different factors during training. These include: physical exercise, cognitive practice (i.e. memorizing routines), social engagement, and also music, which can be therapeutic on its own!


So what does this mean for you?
This article was written to share with you, the reader, the benefits of dancing! I hope at this point, there is no question in your mind that dancing can invariably help to curb age-related declines, and facilitate successful aging. The next question is, what can you do, starting right now?
1. I would recommend a minimum of 1 hour of dance classes per week. Look in your local phone book or use the Internet to find dance classes that are nearby, or community centers that offer dance lessons. If possible, do not only take lessons, but also set aside an hour a week to apply your dancing knowledge during social dancing! Based on this minimum recommendation, you could expect to see an attenuation in cognitive and physical declines (that are commonly associated with aging), in addition to experiencing a greater overall emotional and psychological overall well-being!
2. More is better! If you enjoy dancing, and would like to partake in it more than 1-2 hours per week, I would whole-heartedly recommend it. Research suggests that the more you partake in dancing, the better its overall effects will be. Caution: Only do what feels comfortable! One small caution I would recommend is to start slow with dancing, and to gradually build towards more vigorous dancing. This especially applies to people who have not participated in any sort of previous physical activity for an extended period of time. Injuries can be associated with dancing if certain moves are performed improperly, so be sure to learn any new mechanics or routines from a professional dance teacher, and only participate in dances that you feel comfortable with. There is no sense in rushing towards mastering dancing, since the old adage really does apply here: ‘It’s not about the destination, but rather the journey that counts!’ Mastery in dancing is not required to experience its physical and cognitive benefits. It is the journey that will contribute to these benefits.


In Conclusion… As previously mentioned, the goal of this article was to share with you that dancing is indeed an effective way to prevent or delay cognitive declines in aging individuals. The take home points of this article are:
1. Dancing is not only fun, it’s therapeutic!
2. When dancing, try to always mix up the routine. This will keep
you on your toes and ‘exercise’ your brain to a greater degree. This is what you want!
3. Spontaneity in dancing is great! Memorizing routines is fine, but try to constantly change the order of the movements and different techniques you learn in dancing.
4. Dance often! As little as 1 hour a week can benefit you, but the more you do it, the more you will get out of it!
5. You will get these benefits whether you dance with a partner or without one, but dancing with a partner may confer additional benefits!


The following are the dances we teach:

 International Style

International Standard

Slow Waltz - Tango - Viennese Waltz - Slow Foxtrot - Quickstep

International Latin

Cha Cha - Samba - Rumba - Paso Doble - Jive

 American Style

American Smooth

Waltz - Tango - Foxtrot - Viennese Waltz

American Rhythm

Cha Cha - Rumba - East Coast Swing - Bolero - Mambo - Samba - Hustle - West Coast Swing

Latin nightclub

Salsa - Merengue - Cumbia - Bachata - Cha-Cha-Cha - Samba


 
Toronto's Latin & Ballroom Dance Specialists

L'ambiance Dance Centre Inc. 29 Tandem Rd. Unit 1A, Concord, ON L4K 3G1 905-763-9669

 

Quality, Fun Ballroom and Latin Dance Lessons for all levels from Beginners to Competitors!

Award winning Professional Coaches teaching the latest in social and competitive Ballroom and Latin Dance!

 

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