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by Beth Levine
Updated September 28, 2022
Someday, your doctor may actually prescribe that you put on your dancing shoes. A number of studies have shown that dancing can help protect brain function. So dust off the dance shoes, limber up, and read on.
Country dancing may protect brain tissue
Certain types of brain matter tend to deteriorate as we get older, but some research shows that dancing may help prevent or slow that deterioration. In one study, by Colorado State University, researchers divided participants into four intervention groups: dance classes, walking, walking and nutrition, and strength and balance sessions (active control). They measured white matter in the brains of participants before the study began and six months after the intervention.
White matter is the wiring in the brain that transports neural signals. Think of it as the cables that make a computer’s communications function. As we age, the quality of the white matter slowly deteriorates, causing function to get sluggish, like when we lose a bar on our cellphone. “When your processing speed slows down, it affects all cognitive, emotional and motor functions,” explains lead author Agnieszka Burzynska, assistant professor in the department of human development and family studies at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.
For the dance classes, the men and women took English country dancing three times a week for an hour. As with square dancing, the dancers learned to move from partner to partner in smoothly choreographed lines and squares.
"We looked at 21 white matter regions, and in 10 of them we noticed age-related changes — slight but significant negative change — over just six months,” Burzynska says. “In half of the regions that we looked at, we saw aging in just six months. Remarkable because the people who participated were all in good shape.” The team found, however, that "subjects who participated in dance classes during that time actually saw improved white matter in an area of the brain related to memory and processing speed."
Burzynska believes that the dance intervention helped because it was a combined intervention that involved exercise, social interaction and cognitive challenges. That's not to say traditional exercise doesn't help, but "it's maybe harder to detect and maybe the effects are only visible after longer periods of time."
Do you like to dance like no one is watching? Some research finds that creating your own dance moves may help improve focus. One French study looked at the effect of improvisational dance (producing rather than reproducing or repeating movements) compared with two other training programs, fall prevention and tai chi.
The researchers were measuring the effect of the different programs on “attentional control,” which they defined as the ability to stay on task in the face of distractions, the ability to temporarily stop an activity to respond to new information and then to use that new information to go forward. Training programs were held once a week for an hour for nearly six months. The result? Dance wins when it comes to sharpening mental focus. “Contemporary dance may be practiced by anyone, at any age, in any physical and cognitive … condition, to develop motor flexibility and creativity through movement improvisation. We have suggested that this flexibility at the motor level is transferred to the cognitive level: Motor improvisation leads to cognitive flexibility,” says Olivier Coubard of the neuropsychological laboratory CNS-Fed, in Paris.
Ballroom dancing may help foster navigation skills
Whether or not you love to watch Dancing With the Stars, you may want to give ballroom dancing a whirl, try a salsa class or check out Zumba at the gym. Researchers at Western Sydney University in Penrith, Australia, studied the effect of dancing versus walking in a group of more than 115 adults.
In the eight-month study, one group was taught ballroom dancing (rock ’n’ roll, fox-trot, waltz, salsa and rumba) twice a week, and the other was asked to walk a certain amount with a pedometer, either alone or with a social group. The researchers wanted to see if dancing would improve executive function — the ability to successfully navigate and plan everyday life.
While they found no difference in the two groups, an analysis showed that dancing improved spatial memory (the part of the brain responsible for remembering physical layout and navigation) more than walking did. Dafna Merom, associate professor of physical activity and health, explains: “When a teacher demonstrates a dance to students, they are required to use their visual memory to memorize the body position and shape, the direction of movement in space — what are the steps that takes the body to one direction, how to hold the body when dancing with a partner, and, when moving in space, which direction to go first. In short, there is plenty of visual information of movements in space to remember.”
• "Dance for neuroplasticity: A descriptive systematic review," Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, January 2019. In this systematic review, researchers looked at eight studies and found evidence that dancing can improve neuroplasticity by making structural changes such as increased hippocampal volume and functional changes such as improved memory. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "White Matter Integrity Declined Over 6-Months, but Dance Intervention Improved Integrity of the Fornix of Older Adults," Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, March 2017. Read the full study.
• "Practice of contemporary dance improves cognitive flexibility in aging," Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, September 2011. Read the full study.
• "Cognitive Benefits of Social Dancing and Walking in Old Age: The Dancing Mind Randomized Controlled Trial." Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, February 2016. Read the full study.