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Dancing and Dementia

In 2001, a landmark 21-year study of 469 senior citizens 75 and older concluded. It measured mental acuity in aging by monitoring rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The study’s purpose was to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity.

The researchers studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. They also studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.

The study was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, and funded by the National Institute on Aging.  It was later published in the New England Journal of Medicine (New England Journal of Medicine).

Significantly, almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. There can be cardiovascular benefits, but the focus of this study was the mind, i.e., are there ways to reduce the risk of being overtaken by some form of dementia. One important finding from the study: the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing.

In terms of reduced risk of dementia, here is how some of the activities, mental and physical, stacked up:

  • Bicycling and swimming – 0% reduced risk
  • Playing golf – 0%
  • Reading – 35%
  • Doing crossword puzzles at least four days per week – 47%
  • Dancing frequently – 76% – the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.

The study’s authors suggested that the dancers 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 some leisure activities lowers the risk of dementia by improving cognitive reserve. 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 synapses.

Other study results corroborate the Albert Einstein College of Medicine study, or identify additional benefits experienced by participating individuals. For example, Science Daily (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/04/100416144617.htm) reported, “Two recent studies conducted by University of Missouri researchers found that participation in dance-based therapy can improve balance and gait in older adults. Improved functionality among seniors can decrease their risk of falling and reduce costly injuries.”

Several organizations around the country are engaging older adults in a variety of cultural and arts experiences. Arts for the Aging (AFTA) (www.aftaarts.org), is a local organization doing just that: their main goal being to improve health and wellness in older adults. Pairing teaching artists with senior centers throughout the greater Washington, D.C. area, they bring artistic programming including art, music, story-telling, and yes, dance to over a thousand elderly, most of whom are already dementia or Alzheimer’s disease sufferers.

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