By Richard Powers: Richard has been teaching historic and contemporary social dance for 40 years. He leads workshops around the world and is currently a full-time instructor at Stanford University’s Dance Division.
For centuries, dance manuals and other writings have lauded the health benefits of dancing, usually as physical exercise. More recently we’ve seen research on further health benefits of dancing, such as stress reduction and increased serotonin level, with its sense of well-being. More recently we’ve heard of another benefit: Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter.
A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one’s mind by dancing can ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit. Dancing also increases cognitive acuity at all ages.
You may have heard about the New England Journal of Medicine report on the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity in aging. Here it is in a nutshell:
The 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
The study wanted to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity and discovered that some activities had a significant beneficial effect while others had none.
Cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments were studied; as were physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.
One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. There can be cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of this study was the mind. There was one important exception: the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing:
Reading – 35% reduced risk of dementia
Bicycling and swimming – 0%
Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week – 47%
Playing golf – 0%
Dancing frequently – 76%, the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.
What could cause these significant cognitive benefits? Neurologist Dr. Robert Katzman proposed these persons are more resistant to the effects of dementia as a result of having greater cognitive reserve and increased complexity of neuronal synapses. Like education, participation in mentally engaging activities lowers the risk of dementia by improving these neural qualities.
As Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Coyle explains in an accompanying commentary: “The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use.”
Our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways, as needed. If it doesn’t need to, then it won’t.
AGING AND MEMORY
When brain cells die and synapses weaken with aging, our nouns go first, like names of people, because there’s only one neural pathway connecting to that stored information. If the single neural connection to that name fades, we lose access to it. As people age, some of them learn to parallel process, to come up with synonyms to go around these roadblocks.
The key here is Dr. Katzman’s emphasis on the complexity of our neuronal synapses. More is better. Do whatever you can to create new neural paths. The opposite of this is taking the same old well-worn path over and over again, with habitual patterns of thinking and living. . . We need to keep as many of those paths active as we can, while also generating new paths, to maintain the complexity of our neuronal connections. In other words: Intelligence — use it or lose it.
We immediately ask two questions: 1) Why is dancing better than other activities for improving mental capabilities? 2) Does this mean all kinds of dancing, or is one kind of dancing better than another?
. . .The essence of intelligence is making decisions. The best advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities that require split-second rapid-fire decision-making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style.
One way to do that is to learn something new. Not just dancing, but anything new. Don’t worry about the probability that you’ll never use it in the future. Take a class to challenge your mind. It will stimulate the connectivity of your brain by generating the need for new pathways. Difficult classes are better for you, as they will create a greater need for new neural pathways.
Then take a dance class, which can be even more effective. Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity.
WHO BENEFITS MORE, WOMEN OR MEN?
In social dancing, the Follow role automatically gains a benefit, by making hundreds of split-second decisions as to what to do next, sometimes unconsciously so. As I mentioned on this page, women don’t “follow”, they interpret the signals their partners are giving them, and this requires intelligence and decision-making, which is active, not passive.
This benefit is greatly enhanced by dancing with different partners, not always with the same fellow. With different dance partners, you have to adjust much more and be aware of more variables. This is great for staying smarter longer.
The study made another important suggestion: do it often. Seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week. If you can’t take classes or go out dancing four times a week, then dance as much as you can. More is better. And do it now, the sooner the better. It’s essential to start building your cognitive reserve now. Some day you’ll need as many of those stepping-stones across the creek as possible. Don’t wait — start building them now.