The Mental Benefits of Dancing

Everyone thinks of dancing as a physical thing. It's good for losing weight, staying fit; it's a good form of exercise, all around. However, there are some other benefits, such as a lowering of stress and an increasing of well-being.

But, what about the brain? Can dancing make us smarter? Science is certainly starting to say so. We all know that stimulating the mind can help ward off Alzheimer's disease and other dementia, just like dancing keeps us healthy. But did you know that dancing increases brain activity in all ages?

The New England Journal of Medicine released a report about how recreational activities affect mental sharpness in aging. Here are the basics:

The National Institute on Aging funded a 21-year study led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. They measured mental sharpness by monitoring rates of dementia, a range of diseases that includes Alzheimer's.

They discovered that some activities had a significant benefit on mental function, while others did not.

They studied cognitive activities like reading, writing, solving crossword puzzles, playing cards, and playing musical instruments. They also studied physical activities like tennis, golf, swimming, bicycling, housework, and dancing. Then they calculated how these activities influenced the risk of dementia.

Now, something surprising is that nearly none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. Sure, they’re good for the body, but the study concerned the mind. However, dancing was the only physical activity that offered protection against dementia. It gave a risk reduction of 76%, which was more than any other activity, whether cognitive or physical.

Here is what Dr. Joseph Coyle, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, had to say: "The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use."

Dr. Katzman, in the study itself, proposed that people who dance are more resistant to dementia's effect because they have an increased complexity of neurons and synapses, which increases cognitive reserve. Like learning, engaging in some leisure activities lowers dementia's risk by improving cognitive reserve.

Our brain constantly fixes itself to be most efficient; if it needs to rewire its neural pathways, it will. If it doesn't, it won't.

Memory and Aging

Brain cells die as we get older. Synapses weaken. Nouns, such as the names of people or places, are the first to go, because there is only one neural path connecting to that information. As that path fades, the name fades; we can't access it any longer. The way around this is to develop parallel paths, or, synonyms to get around those paths.

Dr. Katzman therefore emphasizes an approach of "more is better." Create new neuronal paths instead of wearing down the same path over and over. An analogy might be a spiderweb. More strings in the web make it easier to traverse. So, spin more silk in the web by building more paths to a the same thing.

It's a matter of survival, really. Brain cells die randomly, which means that the links of the web are falling apart, one by one. If you only ever built one path across, what happens when that path finally breaks? However, if you spent time building different mental paths to the same information, there are paths left. The memory is not lost.

The study conducted at the college shows that we need to keep those paths active, while generating new paths, so that our cognitive complexity is maintained. But, is dancing the key?

Why is dancing better than other activities when it comes to improving mental sharpness? Is there a specific kind of dancing that needs to be pursued?

Well, the study doesn't answer that. Then again, it doesn't have to. There are many other studies that show that we increase our brain’s power by exercising our minds. That is, if you don't lose the mind, you lose it. Other studies really illustrate this, and help us see the big picture.

We know that intelligence is the ability to make decisions. So, the best way to exercise that ability is by engaging in an activity which requires many decisions, one after the other. An activity that requires conscious thought, and not memorization that is repeatedly recalled. In other words, dancing.

So, learn new things -- not just in dancing, but in any and everything. Challenge your mind. Since the mind adapts as necessary, make it adapt to the hard stuff; frustrating and difficult courses and classes are better than things you already know.

Then, take a dance class. Dancing throws several brain functions at you at once: spatial reasoning, rational thought, musical processes, emotional awareness, physical coordination, and others. All of these increase brain complexity and builds new pathways.

What Dancing Styles Are Best?

Do the kinds of dances that require split-second decisions. That's the key to improving plasticity and maintaining intelligence. Does dancing of any kind lead to such effects? Nope. Anything that works on retracing the same steps wouldn't help. It's all in the new decisions.

So, what can we learn from the study? The participants were all fast dancers. We know this because senior citizens aged 75 years and older grew up in the Roaring Twenties and the Swing Era. Hence, they danced the dances of their youth: foxtrot, swing, waltz, and probably Latin. I might say that these aren't your dad's dances, but they were. What's most important is that the patterns aren't memorized, but improvised.

That isn't to say that sequence-based dancing has no merit. It's great for the body, as it provides cardiovascular, stress and social benefits. However, on the topic of cognitive acuity, some kinds of dancing are better than others.

Can Men and Women Equally Benefit?

In social dancing, the follow role gains an automatic benefit because they must make hundreds of split-second decisions about what to do next. The name is a sort of misnomer, because the person in the follow role, usually a woman, is interpreting signals that their partner gives them. There are many variables to subconsciously juggle, and these variables change depending on the partner. Keeping track of so many things is excellent for keeping the mind sharp.

That isn’t to say that the lead role doesn’t involve decisions. On the contrary, notice what is going on with partner and what is working well. Then, adjust. Adapt. Constantly improve, and you’re making similar rapid-fire decisions. Also, don’t lead with the same patterns in the same fashion each time. Challenge yourself and try new things. Make more decisions. Build your web of intelligence. The other benefit is that your partner will have more fun dancing. They’ll also appreciate your constant adjustments and tailoring for their comfort.

Keep Dancing

The study suggested that dancing be done often. Seniors who solved crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than seniors who solved once a week. Similarly, if you can’t take classes or dance as much as you want, keep dancing. More is better, and the sooner, the better. It’s imperative to start spinning your web now, so that you’ll have more threads of movement later.

Comments ( 6 ) Add Comments

maria ayala

Nice article; it's given me a lot to think about. I've always thought of dancing as a social waste of time. But reading this makes me want to change my tune. I've bookmarked it for the future; thanks.

Gloria Rodriguez Murillo

Interesting way to apply a study to self-help. Do you do birthdays? Okay, I'm kidding, I'll stop. Really, though, it's interesting that dancing can have a mental benefit. It makes sense, and if the data fits, the hypothesis is valid. Nice work.

Bill Ernest

Finally, an article that connects dancing to learning. I keep telling my friends that they should dance more often, but they think it's useless these days. I'll be posting this link everywhere now. Thanks!

Carol Campbell

I like the study so far, but there's still so much missing. Does dancing benefit children? I mean, I play Mozart for my kids and keep them active in lacrosse like any other parent, but should I also be teaching them to dance? I figure that the more neurons that fire now, the better. Maybe I should sign up for some classes with them.

Ruthie Steed

Dancing and learning? That runs pretty contrary to everything media puts out. Usually, in a sitcom, the nerd doesn't want to go to a dance, but his friends force him into it (or her friends, to be politically correct). Possibly, the networks knew about the benefits all along, and just want to keep nerds and athletes away. Can you imagine a smart guy who became smarter by dancing? Maybe my tinfoil hat is on too tight. Then again, there's a reason that most brainy superheroes have a secret identity who knows how to dance. This requires more thought. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Carlbrianna Carl

Eh, it's a tenuous link, in my opinion. If dancing were so good, why does the stereotypical image of the elderly promote bingo and shuffleboard? And why do the elderly keep breaking their hips? I think the intent is good, but I'm not sold quite yet. You've made a few good points, though. At my age, I should really start doing something about my health, before I'm the one breaking a hip. Maybe dancing is the way to go.

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