Of 11 different types of physical activity evaluated by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, only dance lowered participants’ risk of dementia. The study, conducted for more than 21 years among senior men and women, concluded that the mental effort and social interaction required by dancing surpasses many other physically and mentally stimulating activities in preserving brain strength.
The Journal’s study reports that frequent dancing affords a 76 percent protection against the risk of dementia among both cognitive and physical activities. Compare that to reading, with a 35 percent lower risk, and doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week, with a 47 percent risk reduction. Then, consider the “zero” brain function impact of vigorous physical activities, such as swimming, bicycling, or playing golf, also identified in the study.
“Dance is the movement art with the most unlimited diversity in motion and vocabulary for any human to do,” says Mary Heller, a BeMoved dance instructor at locations such as Prescott’s Alta Vista Senior Living.
The thought process and concentration of achieving dance moves are what sets dancing above other paths to revving memory. The exercise benefits noted by Heller include challenging balance, strengthening all core muscle groups, promoting active isolated stretching and offering high intensity interval training.
Heller describes her BeMoved classes as a mix of sequencing, warm up and cool down, with participants imitating movements at their own pace: “bigger or smaller, quick or double-time, loose or sharp.” Even if you know the movements, the changes in sequence force the brain and limbs into action to keep up. In addition, there is variation with each song. The style of music chosen for the session also brings diversity.
“It’s about an experience, about an art,” Heller explained. “At BeMoved, we are passionate about sharing the joy of dance with people of all movement abilities. Our ambition is to awaken the body, stimulate the mind and feed the soul.”
“It’s a fun and stimulating class that provides a delightful way to move to great music in a safe and supportive surrounding,” said Janet Allen, one of Heller’s BeMoved students. “I have gotten so much from the dance/fitness classes that Mary offers. I want to do anything I can to get the word out to others in the Prescott area who could benefit from Mary’s expertise.”
Someone in the United States develops Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and 5.4 million Americans live with dementia. Society’s costs for treatment in 2016 totaled $236 billion, and one in three seniors died with some form of dementia.
“It’s amazing how excellent dance is for the mind,” shared Dawn Wilson, an instructor who offers classes at the Adult Center of Prescott and other venues. “I teach all types of dance – Latin, country, swing and line dancing. I’m always amazed at how it helps people improve their memory because it keeps re-establishing new synapses in the brain. The constant learning of new movement is excellent for that. It requires pretty much almost every muscle in the body, so you are actively pursuing not only physical fitness, but mental fitness also.”
No matter the individual’s preference – couples or singles dancing – there is a cognitive benefit, Wilson explained. “Line dancing is fantastic for those who would rather not dance with a partner, and it’s also very good for the brain. In line dance, each individual is challenged to remember step patterns and will learn to step to a particular rhythm. In learning partner dance, the ‘lead’ will learn how to signal a movement using his frame, while the ‘follow’ must learn to wait for the lead to direct her.”
Participants need not attend dance sessions with a partner, Wilson added, since both “leads” and “follows” learn their parts first and then rotate partners as needed.
Wilson said she is awed “by how much my students improve with each lesson that they attend. Of course, some learn faster than others, but everyone can achieve great strides if they don’t give up. With each dance that a student learns, there are similarities that start to build on each other, thus students start to see themselves learning faster with time and with consistent practice.”
According to Heller, “Dance is one of the oldest therapies and practices humans have done together in every culture for millions of years for daily self-transformation, healing and experiencing the divine love and joy in oneself and others. Thus, release fears of dancing, of moving, take risks in a safe space, and learn to trust your body. Be inspired through this transformative experience incorporating powerful ancient and modern healing. Clear old stories that no longer serve you, and create new stories through dance.”
Wilson shares a similar perspective. “With each new dance movement, the synapses in the brain are exercised and forced to make new connections. So, whether you want to improve your memory, meet new friends, exercise to burn some calories, or just want to have fun while you watch your skill levels improve, you can’t go wrong with learning how to dance.” QCBN
By Sue Marceau, QCBN
Photo by Sue Marceau