Some research suggests that regular dance classes can improve cognitive function and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
In 2003 Dr. Joe Verghese, associate professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx, conducted a research study comparing the effects of different types of physical and mental activities. He found that regular leisure activities and exercise decreased the risk of developing dementia, particularly ‘frequent dancing’. Dancing significantly reduced the risk of dementia.
The researchers studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. And they also studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.
This study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, recruited 488 people (75 years of age and older) between 1980-1983, they were assessed clinically and with neuro-psychological tests with follow ups between 12 to 18 months. The study followed them during the 21 years from 1980 to 2001. At the end, 469 participants finished the study (2 did not register any activity and the other 17 could not be followed up). The individuals were compared between those who were practicing exercise more frequently (more than twice per week) or ‘rare participation’ (once a week or less, once a month).
One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. Findings showed that at the end 124 people developed dementia: 61 Alzheimer’s disease, 30 Vascular Dementia, 25 Mix Dementia, 8 other dementias.
There was one important exception - the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing:
Bicycling, swimming, golf etc: 0%
Doing crossword puzzles: 47%
Dancing regularly: 76%
Overall, dancing offered the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason, Verghese has a few theories. “Dance is a complex activity. You have to follow the music, remember the steps and improvise,” says Verghese. “And it’s a physical activity so it also increases the flow of blood to all parts of the body, including the brain.”
While Maria Carrillo, Ph.D., director of medical and scientific relations for the Alzheimer’s Association, agrees that the social and physical aspects of regular (at least twice a week) aerobic dance classes may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, she says that even learning a new dance doesn’t necessarily count as a mental activity. “Once a dance is practiced you don’t really think about it any more, it’s like driving a car. When we talk about increasing mental activity, we’re talking about learning a new language, a new subject, or reading a book.”
So if you want to be sure to increase your mental activity, you’ll have to compliment your dancing with a class on the history of salsa or a book on your favorite dancer or musician.
The biological basis for how exercise might preserve brain function is on the improved cerebral blood flow and oxygen delivery and induced fibroblast growth factor in the hippocampus (part of the brain associated with memory).
A more recent study by Larson and collaborators have determined whether regular exercise is associated with a reduced risk for incidence of dementia, particularly Alzheimer disease in a group followed biennially over 6 years to examine if there is any modulated association with physical exercise and incident dementia, when other potential risk factors such as depression, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, apolipoprotein Ee4 allele, cognitive functions and life style.
Findings showed that 107 out of 1740 older adults than age 65 years developed Alzheimer disease. The incidence rate was 13 per 1000 person-years for those exercising 3 or more times per week, compared with 19.7 per 1000 person-years for those who exercised fewer than 3 times per week. The physical exercise reported were walking, hiking, bicycling, aerobics, swimming, water aerobics, weight training, stretching, or other exercise such as dancing.
The activities followed by population who did not develop dementia were reading, playing board games, playing an instrument and regular dancing. However, the authors argued that although physical exercise was good for health, the effect on dementia protection is uncertain. They recommend more research for the latter activities to understand their effect. The authors acknowledged important confounding factors such as not measuring the level of education and intellectual ability that made participants chose a particular leisure activity. Nevertheless, although conclusions are inconclusive, this study has opened a door for psychosocial researchers and health care professionals to believe that regular leisure activities (and especially dancing!) have the potential to decrease the risk of developing dementia.
1. Larson, E.B., Wang, l, Bowen, J.D, McCormick, C., Teri, L., Crane, P, Kukull, W. (2006) Exercise is Associated with reduced risk for incident dementia among persons 65 years of age and older; Annals of Internal Medicine, 144, 73-81.
2. Verghese, J. Lipton, R.B., Katz, M.J., Hall, C.B., Derby, C.A., Kuslansky, G., Ambrose, A.F., Sliwinski, M., Buschke, H. (2003). Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly, New England Journal of Medicine; 348, 2508-2516. [DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa022252]
3. 'Physical Activity Prevents Progression for Cognitive Impairment and Vascular Dementia' by Ana Verdelho et al in Stroke journal
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