Senior Health: The Effects of Dancing on Our Brains

Couple Ballroom Dancing
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Dancing—it's a great way to combine physical exercise, music, and social interaction. Several research studies have found that it also may serve another role: to improve our cognition as we age and possibly prevent or reduce the chances of diseases like Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia from developing over time.

In an early study dating back to 2003, researchers found that dancing was the only physical activity to lower the risk of dementia developing as people aged.

Reading and doing crossword puzzles also were found to be effective in reducing dementia rates in this study. But, of all the physical activities measured in this study, dancing was the only one to be correlated with a lower risk of dementia, and the results were significant. It found that those who danced were 76 percent less likely to develop dementia.

Several researchers since then have agreed that dance benefits the brain. Additionally, many studies have found that other physical activities such as aerobic exercise, weight resistance training and running are also beneficial for the brain, in addition to dancing.

The following brain health benefits have been correlated with dancing:

Improved White Matter Health

Research has shown that dancing has been correlated with improved health of the brain's white matter and specifically, a structure in the brain called the fornix. The fornix consists of white matter and is located near the hippocampus.

One of the roles of the fornix is to help form some of our memories. Researchers have found that a decline in the health of the fornix has been associated with the progression of mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease, showing the importance of this structure in the brain.

Keeping our brain's white matter healthy is very important.

Of note, one study found that after only 6 months, changes in the integrity (health) of the brain's white matter were detectable in older adults. The researchers pointed out that this shows that as we age, being proactive regarding our brain health is critical in maintaining function. Thus, if dance is able to combat the loss or deterioration of white matter, this would have the potential to significantly improve brain functioning.

Compensation for Thin Gray Matter

Surprisingly, people with a history of dancing were more likely to have thinner gray matter in their brains. While this is often associated with a decrease in cognitive performance, the opposite was found to be true for dancers. Studies have shown that dancers performed better than non-dancers in learning and memory tasks. Researchers theorized that perhaps dancers have built up cognitive reserve over the years, which is thought to help "fill in the gaps" for deficits that may develop over time.

Increased Brain Plasticity

Research studies indicate that dancing improves the plasticity of the brain, sometimes allowing one part of the brain to compensate for another part that might not work quite as well. For example, after a stroke damages one part of the brain, other parts of the brain sometimes develop new neural connections and take over the function that was damaged by the stroke.

Gains in Executive Functioning

Executive functioning has been correlated with being able to live well independently as people age. Executive functioning involves the ability to plan ahead and make decisions. Some research has shown that dance programs increase the executive functioning ability of older adults.

Improved Visuospatial Ability

Dancing has been shown to improve visuospatial abilitly in older adults. Visuaospatial ability (the understanding of visual perception and spatial relationships) declines in people who develop dementia.

Improved Episodic Memory in Latinos

In one study, older Latinos participated in a 2-week session of Latin dancing.

Following the conclusion of this program, researchers found that participants' episodic memory and general cognition improved.

Why Does Dancing Benefit the Brain?

Dancing requires the use of several parts of our brain, and the music we dance to also engages the mind. Social interaction has shown to decrease the risk of dementia as well, and many types of dancing involve social interaction.

Dancing is also great physical exercise. Numerous studies have concluded that regular physical exercise significantly reduces the risk of dementia. In fact, one study found that almost any kind of physical activity is likely to reduce the risk.

Using Dance in Dementia Care 

Dance has also been used as an intervention for people who have already developed dementia. Some research found that persons with dementia who participated in a dancing group experienced improved mood and communication abilities following a 10-week pilot program.

A Word From Verywell

While there's no single miracle solution for the aging mind, dancing may be a fun and effective way to exercise your body and your brain. Combining physical exercise, such as dancing, with mental activity and a healthy diet can go a long way towards keeping your mind and body healthy.

Sources:

Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Apr 20, 2015. Dance and the brain: a review. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273474028_Dance_and_the_brain_A_review

Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders Extra.  2016 Sep-Dec; 6(3): 508–517. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5123027/​

Dementia. Vol 11, Issue 6, 2012. 'Dancing down memory lane': Circle dancing as a psychotherapeutic intervention in dementia—a pilot study. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1471301211420509

Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. White Matter Integrity Declined Over 6-Months, but Dance Intervention Improved Integrity of the Fornix of Older Adults. http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnagi.2017.00059/full​

Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2016; 8: 26. Cognitive Benefits of Social Dancing and Walking in Old Age: The Dancing Mind Randomized Controlled Trial. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4761858/​

Journal of Aging and Physical Activity. 2017 Jan;25(1):32-40. The Efficacy of a Dance Intervention as Cognitive Training for the Old-Old. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27182068​

The New England Journal of Medicine. 2003; 348:2508-2516. Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly. http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa022252​

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