It’s official: Dancing is good for the brain

It’s official: Dancing is good for the brain

Recent research shows that social activities, like dancing, can reduce the risk of dementia among seniors. Stanford University’s dance studies department highlighted a study on the school’s website that took the research one step further.

The research was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and funded by the National Institute on Aging. It studied adults 75 years and older to determine which physical or mental exercises improved cognitive sharpness.

Researchers looked at a number of mental and physical activities that included reading, writing, crossword puzzles, playing cards, playing a musical instrument, swimming, cycling, tennis, golf, dancing, walking and doing housework.

The study found that, although physical activities offered cardiovascular benefits, most did not reduce advancement of dementia. That beneficial gold medal went to social dancing.

Shown below is the risk reduction each activity provided:

  • Reading: 35% reduced risk of dementia
  • Cycling and swimming: 0%
  • Doing crossword puzzles a minimum of four days a week: 47%
  • Playing golf: 0%
  • Dancing frequently: 76%

Use it or lose it

Richard Powers, a social dance instructor and historian at Stanford, wrote about the Einstein study and its implications on Standford’s website. According to Powers, as people age, brains cells die and are not replaced, reducing the number of nerve cell connections to stored information, like names. This makes it more difficult to retrieve information that was familiar and readily accessible at one time. If all nerve cell connections fail, the person can no longer retrieve the desired words.

But all is not lost. The existing connections can be strengthened and new connections can be built with challenging mental activity on a regular basis. The more challenging the task is, the greater the benefits. That’s where dance comes in. While it may seem like only a fun physical activity, it is actually a great way to beef up the brain cells. Powers said dancing engages a number of brain functions simultaneously: kinesthetic (movement of muscles, tendons and joints), rational, musical and emotional.

Powers points out that not all dancing will be equal in terms of cognitive benefit. The best form of dancing is freestyle lead and follow because it requires split-second decision-making on the part of both partners. Social dancing that will provide this mental stimulation includes basic foxtrot, waltz and swing.

Choose new over familiar

A research study led by Denise Park, psychological scientist and lead researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, provided insights similar to those of the Einstein study. “It seems it is not enough just to get out and do something—it is important to get out and do something that is unfamiliar and mentally challenging, and that provides broad stimulation mentally and socially,” said Park. “When you are inside your comfort zone you may be outside your enhancement zone.”