One of my greatest fears is contracting Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. As far as I know, I have no particular risk factors to warrant being any more afraid of this disease than high blood pressure or cancer, yet the thought of slowly losing my ability to do my work, to enjoy my family, in the end, the complete loss of self, is absolutely terrifying to me. And I suspect that many of you reading this can relate to those fears. That’s why I’m urging all of you to dance – and maybe save our lives in the process.
While the benefits of physical activity in general are well documented, there is something special about dancing that neuroscientists haven’t been able to find in other forms of exercise. Dancing seems to engage more portions of the brain. The complex combination of balance, spatial orientation, timing, strength, social interaction and grace accompanied by music appears to be a powerhouse cocktail of positive chemicals for the brain at any age. The benefits of regular dancing include improved memory and stronger neuronal connections. Researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine studied eleven different types of activity, ranging from cycling to golf and found only one that lowered participants’ risk of dementia – dancing. Another study focused on Zumba and found that regular enjoyers of this form of Latin dance and exercise had improved moods, visual recognition and decision-making skills when compared to a control group. Other studies have found that dance can help form new neural connections in areas related to long-term memory and spatial recognition.
Dance has long been recognized as an effective form of therapy for patients with neural disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, although much of the evidence has been anecdotal to date. Patients given regular exercise to a rhythmic beat gain strength, balance and upper body control. In one study, practicing tai chi produced better results than weightlifting and stretching.
So when was the last time you danced, exactly? Until I came across this research, I couldn’t remember the last time I danced, but it was surely several years ago. Now I can tell you that I enjoyed a spirited free style dance to the Beach Boys just a few minutes before writing this post. Maybe that helped pump blood into my brain and improve my writing process. I can’t say for sure, but I can tell you that it felt great and I plan to feel that way much more often from now on.
I hope you join me – and grab someone you love and get them dancing too. It can’t hurt, and it just might save your life.