People have been obsessed with reversing the aging process since the days of Ponce de Leon and his ‘fountain of youth’. In the last few decades, we’ve seen huge shifts in longevity in developed countries. More people are not only reaching old age, they’re reaching very old age. Researchers have been focusing their studies on finding new strategies to meet the concept of ‘successful aging’ – the avoidance of disease and disability and the maintenance of physical and cognitive functions with an engagement in social and productive activities.
During aging, sensorimotor, cognitive and physical performance all decline, but new research indicates that they can improved by training and exercise, indicating that age-related changes are treatable. Dance therapy is increasingly used because it combines many diverse features making it a great tool for increasing physical performance – as well as brain performance!
For years, studies have been focused on programs aimed at improving aerobic capacity and cognitive functions in elderly individuals through physical exercise programs since there is a close relationship between physical fitness and cognitive performance. But new research finds the benefits of dancing may go well beyond physical exercise therapy because dancing provides increased sensory, motor, and cognitive demands. Dancing is an activity that emerged from a need for social interaction and non-verbal communication, and it is a universal human expression consistent across generations, cultures, and social classes throughout the world. Compared to activities such as physical exercise or playing an instrument, dance comprises rhythmic motor coordination, balance and memory, emotions, affection, social interaction, acoustic stimulation, and musical experience apart from its requirements for physical activity. This unique combination of properties makes dance a powerful interventional approach to aging. For these reasons, dance has also been established as a therapeutic tool for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, dementia, overweight children, and patients with serious mental illness.
Research has found that dancing is a promising neuro-plasticity tool that elicits activity in multiple brain regions. A recent study compared the effects of dancing, walking and walking combined with a nutritional intervention to an active control intervention (stretching and toning) on the brain’s white matter integrity (WMI). WMI is a reliable marker of aging in the brain, and lifestyle interventions that promote maintained or improved WMI may be a key ingredient in protecting against cognitive decline and dementia.
Subjects who participated in the dance therapy, which offers a more challenging complex ideo-motor “workout” for the body and the brain, saw significant levels of increased WMI in the fornix, a pathway area of the brain associated with the hippocampus, a key location for learning and memory. The conclusion was that a proactive program that combines physical, cognitive and social engagement may be a “best bet” for maintaining or improving white matter integrity across the aging process.
THE TAKEAWAY: Dancing is just one way to “up” the ante and offer workouts that not only challenge the body but engage the mind and offer social opportunities. This study confirms the added value of such complex ideo-motor activities over simple motor workouts such as walking, as well as the boost of social-based training for better brain health.
So don’t just sit there – get up DANCE!