Dancing may well be the most powerful anti-aging thing you can do, according to several recent scientific papers. I admit that when I thought about doing a blog on dancing for my plastic surgery site, I was worried that it might be a bit self-serving since Argentine tango is becoming something of a serious hobby for me. I knew of a few scientific studies on tango and Parkinson’s disease, and one or two others, and didn’t expect to find much new. As it turns out, there’s a lot. A few hours on Medline revealed dozens of scientific studies, and I came away convinced that there is something hugely important in dance relating to health, longevity, and happiness. We will get back to plastic surgery topics soon enough, but this needed to be shared.
1. Dancing makes you smarter. Researchers at the International Laboratory for Brain, Music, and Sound Research at McGill University in Montreal recently reported that long term dance training changes both gray and white matter structure in the brain. Known as brain plasticity, this ability to rewire the brain’s circuits on an ongoing basis is critical to preservation of cognitive function especially as we get older.
2. Dancing improves balance. Loss of balance and falling are a major problem in older individuals, but everyone benefits from better sense of balance. Regular participation in social dancing has been shown to help maintain balance.
3. Improved rehabilitation. Many illnesses such as stroke affect both physical and mental functioning. Another Canadian group, this one from Baycrest Hospital in Toronto, evaluated dance in neuro-rehabilitation. They noted that “Not only does it incorporate physical and motor skill related activities, but it can also engage various cognitive functions such as perception, emotion, and memory, all while done in an enriched environment” in addition to “improving participation with therapy because it is enjoyable.”
4. Dancing improves strength and endurance. This is of course true for all ages, but especially important for older individuals when muscle mass naturally begins to diminish.
5. Therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Neurological conditions affecting movement, such as Parkinson’s disease, result in significant disability, diminished quality of life, and even depression. A study from La Trobe University in Bundoora, Australia, demonstrated the feasibility of Argentine tango lessons as therapy. Studies at McGill and the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden found measurably significant improvements in both physical parameters and depression with tango intervention therapy. This may relate to the physical training as well as the social interaction of partner dancing.
6. Improved cardiovascular health. While it makes sense that exercise of any type would be helpful, recall from the last blog on “gratitudology” that activities directed at a more positive mindset are independently helpful. Dance intervention therapy has documented improvements in cardiovascular health, and my guess is that the effect is amplified with dance over less interactive types of exercise.
7. Dancers’ high substitutes for less healthy habits. Researchers from Budapest, and Trent University in Nottingham, UK, developed a standardized tool called the “Dance Motivation Inventory” or DMI. Based on a large sample of salsa and/or ballroom dancers, they determined that the strongest motivators were Mood Enhancement, Socializing, and Escapism, similar to what is found in other reward-seeking but riskier behaviors such as drinking, gambling, and gaming.
8. Improved recovery from cancer treatment. A study from the University of Hong Kong demonstrated several ways in which breast cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy benefited from Dance Movement Therapy. The program helped the patients (1) cope with cancer, treatment, and physical symptoms; (2) improve mental well-being; (3) improve total functioning; (4) bridge back to a normal and better life; and (5) participate in shared positive experiences.
9. Dancing alleviates depression. The University of Prague reported success from a dancing therapy program in a group of elderly nursing home residents with clinical depression. With a little as one dance session per week, they were actually able to reduce dose requirements of anti-depressant medications in many cases.
10. Sexual function. Noting the relationship between poor cardiac performance and sexual dysfunction, a study from Brazil speculated that a dance-based physical fitness program would benefit both. Though they didn’t measure the latter specifically, their cardiac rehab program incorporating salsa, merengue, and samba was believed to potentiate sexuality by “the combination of music and physical activity, in a situation that naturally propitiates high levels of well-being hormones, such as endorphins.” All this reminds me of something I heard when an elderly Brazilian samba dancer was being interviewed about how she maintained enough youthful stamina to march in the Carnaval parade; her anti-aging secret was something like “Just never stop dancing.”
References on request