Dancing improves cognitive health in seniors, meta-analysis finds

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“One can imagine that as the body moves, the brain is stimulated, emotions are positive and that there is sensory stimulation at the same time.”

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On top of benefits for physical and psychological health, dance improves the cognitive health of older adults, suggests a meta-analysis published in the journal Arts & Health.

Further research is necessary to determine what distinguishes dance from other physical activities, according to one specialist.

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The analysis is based on several studies focusing on the links between cognition and dance.

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Despite its shortcomings — particularly the fact it is based on only five studies that measure the association between dance and cognitive health — the research is interesting because it can be added to several others that have found positive effects of dance among older adults, said Annie Gauthier , a scientific adviser at the Institut national de santé publique du Québec.

“Globally, we are in agreement that dance has a positive effect on the health of older people, on the physical as well as the cognitive,” said Dr. Louis Bherer, professor in the department of medicine at the Université de Montréal and director of the EPIC Center at the Montreal Heart Institute.

Bherer, who has been involved in several studies on the issue, says practicing dance alone does not guarantee a person’s health. “Nevertheless, we incorporate it in our recommendations for comprehensive health.”

In addition to being a way to get people moving, dance can help people manage their stress, according to a study to which he contributed. Research, done in collaboration with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, compared a group of people who danced three times a week with a group that participated in an exercise program.

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“After three months, the people who did the dance program had more reduced cortisol levels on awakening,” Bherer said. “On the other hand, the dance group did not improve its cardiovascular health in the way that the exercise group did.”

As for cognitive health, dance stimulates the brain in several ways: cognitive, sensory (because of the music) and emotional.

“One can imagine that as the body moves, the brain is stimulated, emotions are positive and that there is sensory stimulation at the same time,” Bherer said.

“There is also the fact dance makes you develop certain skills and learning, and that is also … a factor in protecting cognitive health,” said Gauthier.

Dancing in a group is also positive.

“In the way in which it was explained to study participants, dance was also an activity of socialization, which reduces isolation. And social isolation is a risk factor for cognitive problems,” Gauthier explained.

Dance can have a positive effect on the brains of older adults “through an action on the brain volume and the number of neurons — and that’s important for everyone. It can evolve throughout life,” said Gauthier.

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And physical activity in general has a positive effect on this phenomenon.

“Certain studies suggest that a complex physical exercise, combined with other kinds of stimulation, notably cognitive, will improve brain connectivity, for example,” Bherer said.

“There are studies that also suggest an improved co-ordination capacity in terms of behavior,” he said. “When people do combined workout programs, with motor movements and physical activity, they will improve their ability to do several things at the same time.”

However, available studies don’t reveal which elements of dance distinguish it from other physical activities in terms of improved cognitive health. As well, it has not yet been determined for how long and at what intensity dance must be practiced to see benefits.

“Does it take a dance that is physically super exciting so that, after such a dance program, people are in better physical health? Or is it the simple cognitive stimulation that is associated with dance? Or is it the complexity of it all?” Bherer asked.

What is important above all is to move more, he said, lamenting that “we were never as sedentary as now.”

And it’s never too late to act to improve one’s cognitive health, Gauthier added.

“There’s something malleable in the brain. That’s why it’s never too late to act, even though the earlier you act, the more you build a brain reserve and act on the brain’s structural characteristics,” she said. “And finally to have greater capacity to compensate for the normal cognitive losses that accompany age.”

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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