Good news for those who love to tap their feet to a tune: Dancing may help improve brain health for seniors and delay cognitive decline.
The search for effective Alzheimer’s treatments suggests that performing certain complex tasks may help the brain form new neural pathways to slow cognitive decline and help ward off dementia. Most of those tasks involve mental tasks, such as reading and doing challenging puzzles. However, it turns out that the physical act of dancing may also improve brain health.
Brain Benefits of Dancing
The cognitive benefits of dancing were first uncovered in a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003. It showed that among 11 forms of physical leisure practiced by the study’s subjects over 21 years, frequent dancing was the only one that appeared to lower the risk of dementia.
A 2017 study also shows that dancing may have beneficial effects on tissue in the brain called white matter, which facilitates communication among different regions of grey matter in the brain. That communication is vital for preserving cognitive functions.
While the study’s findings covered a wide range of brain functions, the data that attracted significant attention was that the dance group participants experienced the most beneficial effects, strengthening the integrity of the white matter structure in their brains.
In their report, the study authors stated, “We provided first evidence for a dance intervention resulting in (a white matter benefit). We attribute this to the fact that dance is a combined cognitive, physical, and social training known to boost intervention outcomes.”
Continuous Research on Dancinig for Better Brain Health
In recent news, Wake Forest University and Wake Forest University School of Medicine received a $3 million grant from the National Institute of Health to continue researching the connections between dance and brain health.
The new study, called IGROOVE, will be funded over five years and focus on determining what kinds of dance affect brain health. Participants in the study will be assigned different styles and dance schedules for six months.
So far, dance and brain health research has collectively shown that dance can help improve the quality of life for older adults in the following areas:
Adding Dance to Your Routine
Talk to a medical professional first if you’d like to add dance to your health routine. Opt for online lessons, in-person classes, or learn from your spouse or a close friend.
Several free resources are available to those who want to take virtual lessons. Websites like SilverSneakers offer free videos like this disco line dance class or a 20-minute dance workout to get you started. In addition, DancePlug has a free seven-day trial, so you can try a variety of pre-recorded and live classes in numerous styles, from improv to ballet, before paying for a monthly membership.
In-person classes may also be available at your local community college, senior center, YMCA/YWCA, or dance studio. Remember to take breaks as you get tired, and drink plenty of water.
Finally, don’t be discouraged if your physical circumstances, or your loved one’s, simply will not allow for dancing. Nearly all forms of physical exercise can be highly beneficial, even leisurely walks. Do as much as you can, for yourself and your loved one.
More Senior Health and Caregiving Resources
Staying mentally fit and active can be a challenge, not just for seniors but also for their caregivers. Explore more resources like these for seniors and caregivers here.
This blog was originally published in October 2020. It was updated to highlight current research in May 2023.