Bruce Frankel

Author of the new book "What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life."

Why Dance? To Maintain Everyday Competence And Stay Fit Physically And Mentally, Study Shows

August 10, 2010

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Why dance?

Beyond the joy of bopping to rhythm and staying in shape, a growing tide of research has been pointing to dance’s ability to preserve mental fitness, too.

Now, a new study suggests that following a regular schedule of dancing into old age has far-reaching effects that not only preserve cognitive, motor, and perceptual abilities, but is “a prime candidate for the preservation of everyday life competence of elderly individuals.”

In recent years, dance has been used as a therapeutic tool for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, dementia, obesity in children, and patients with serious mental illness. Most previous studies have focused on its benefit to the cardiovascular health, muscle strengthening, posture, and balance among the elderly.

Using PET scans, neuroscientists have previously shown that dancing activates many areas of the brain and elicits the interaction of wide-spread neural networks. Other studies have shown that repeated physical activities have the ability to reorganize the brain, otherwise known as neuroplasticity, into old age.

“We here went one step further by hypothesizing that year-long dancing activity in an elderly population should promote general advantages including preservation of cognitive, motor and sensorimotor performance as well as perceptual abilities,” according to the study by researchers, led by Jan-Christoph Kattenstroth, at the Neural Plasticity Lab at the Institute for Neuroinformatics, Ruhr-University Bochum.

They studied the impact on 24 amateur dancers, with an average age of 71 and an average of 16.5 years of regular ballroom dancing, compared with a sedentary group of 38 adults, of the same average age, with no record of sports or dancing activities.

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“We found that in each of the different levels investigated,” including cognitive, attentional, intellectual, perceptual and sensorimotor performance, the group of amateur dancers performed at a superior level compared with the group of non-dancers.

The advantages of dance, in addition to physical activity, may result from its unique combination of other elements, including engagement of emotions, social interaction, sensory stimulation, motor coordination and music. 

Interestingly, in a recent study, experienced adult Tai Chi practitioners demonstrated superior spatial sense and sensitivity of touch, in comparison to matched control subjects. As one explanation, researchers in that study proposed that either individuals with a high fitness are drawn to Tai Chi, or that Tai Chi itself drives cortical changes which lead to superior tactile acuity.

But researchers at the Neural Plasticity Lab suggested that increased levels of neurotrophins, “up-regulated,” or produced, during dancing might also be responsible for the superior tactile acuity seen in Tai Chi practicioners. Neurotrophins are a family of proteins, or growth factors, capable of signaling which neurons, or brain cells, survive, differentiate, or grow.

The group of amateur dancers in the lab’s study scored higher than the passive group in everyday competence, as measured by a everyday competence questionnaire. It looked at various aspects of independent living and mobility, social relations, general health, and contentment.

“Our study provides strong evidence that dance promotes a wide-range of beneficial effects,” the study concluded. “Therefore, dance might be an approach” to maintaining brain health and plasticity and contribute to successful aging.

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