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Monday, December 21, 2015

Dancing -- Smarter and Happier Brains

My wife and I thoroughly enjoy going to the American Legion Post 23 club to interact with friends, listen to music, and dance. We receive a sense of pure joy in a place where nice adults of all ages enjoy fellowship and social contact -- it is truly a blessing to gather in a place where people who respect our armed forces and who celebrate democracy can have fun.

We especially enjoy dancing at the Legion. I have often touted the obvious physical benefits of dancing along with the social rewards the activity offers. Not only is dancing known to be great exercise, but, more recently, research supports that dancing is good stress reduction as it increase serotonin levels. Scientists say it also increases a person's sense of well-being.

As if that is not enough to encourage folks to dance, a relatively new major study has added to the growing evidence that stimulating one's mind by dancing can ward off Alzheimer's disease and other dementia. Dancing increases cognitive acuity at all ages.

This 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Richard Powers, teacher of historic and contemporary social dance for 40 years and full-time instructor at Stanford University's Dance Division, says ...

"The study wanted to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity. They discovered that some activities had a significant beneficial effect. Other activities had none.

"They studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. And they studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.

"One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. There can be cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of this study was the mind.

"There was one important exception: the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing."

Reading - 35% reduced risk of dementia
Bicycling and swimming - 0%
Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week - 47%
Playing golf - 0%
Dancing frequently - 76%. That was the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.

(Joe Verghese, M.D., Richard B. Lipton, M.D., Mindy J. Katz, M.P.H., Charles B. Hall, Ph.D., Carol A. Derby, Ph.D., Gail Kuslansky, Ph.D., Anne F. Ambrose, M.D., Martin Sliwinski, Ph.D., and Herman Buschke, M.D. "Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly." The New England Journal of Medicine. June 19, 2003.)

(Richard Powers. "Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter."
Stanford Dance. July 30, 2010.)

Your Brain On Dancing

Why does dancing offer great benefits to intelligence?

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Coyle explained in an accompanying commentary to the study: "The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use."

When brain cells die and synapses weaken with aging, our nouns go first, like names of people, because there's only one neural pathway connecting to that stored information. If the single neural connection to that name fades, we lose access to it. As people age, some of them learn to parallel process, to come up with synonyms to go around these roadblocks.

In other words, our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways, as needed. If it doesn't need to, then it won't. We should do whatever you can to create new neural paths. The opposite of this is taking the same old well-worn path over and over again, with habitual patterns of thinking and living. Powers gives this "rocky" analogy to brain health:
"The more stepping stones there are across the creek, the easier it is to cross in your own style.
Randomly dying brain cells are like stepping stones being removed one by one. Those who had only one well-worn path of stones are completely blocked when some are removed. But those who spent their lives trying different mental routes each time, creating a myriad of possible paths, still have several paths left."

Jean Piaget (1896 – 1980), renowned Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher, put it like this: intelligence is what we use when we don't already know what to do.

Why is dancing better than other activities for improving mental capabilities?

The New England Journal study does not answer this question, but Richard Powers believes the best advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is "to involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style." 
One way to do that is to learn something new. Not just dancing, but anything new. Powers suggests taking a dance class, which can be even more effective. Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity.

What kind of dancing seems best suited to split-second decision making?

Powers thinks the best is social dancing involving freestyle lead and follow. He even concludes that older Americans who still dance the basic foxtrot, waltz, swing, and maybe some rumba and cha cha find great benefits.

Understand that women don't really just "follow" a partner's lead, they interpret the signals their partners give them, and this requires intelligence and decision-making, which is active, not passive.

And, men can also match the degree of decision-making if they choose to do so. Powers says ...

"Here's how:

1) "Really pay attention to your partner and what works best for her. Notice what is comfortable for her, where she is already going, which signals are successful with her and which aren't, and constantly adapt your dancing to these observations. That's rapid-fire split-second decision making.

2) "Don't lead the same old patterns the same way each time. Challenge yourself to try new things each time you dance. Make more decisions more often. Intelligence: use it or lose it."

This benefit is greatly enhanced by dancing with different partners, not always with the same fellow.  With different dance partners, you have to adjust much more and be aware of more variables.

The Powers summary: "The most succinct definition I know for intelligent dancing: a highly active attention to possibilities. And I think it's wonderful that both the Lead and Follow role share this same ideal.  Dance as much as you can -- the more, the better. And, Once this highly active attention to possibilities, flexibility, and alert tranquility are perfected in the art of dance partnering, dancers find it even more beneficial in their other relationships, and in everyday life."

Even limited dancing can help with a host of problems.

Christopher Bergland -- world-class endurance athlete, coach, and author -- says, "Through regular aerobic training that incorporates some type of dance at least once a week anyone can maximize his or her brain function." Bergland also speaks of dance as a benefit to improve treatment for patients with chronic dizziness.

An Italian study in 2006 has shown that dance is a very good exercise for heart patients compared to other aerobic exercises like cycling. This may be partly because the patients enjoyed it much more.

("Heart failure patients can waltz their way to healthier hearts."
America Heart Association. 2006.)

Swedish researchers, writing in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics, studied 112 teenage girls who were struggling with problems including neck and back pain, stress, anxiety, and depression. Half of the girls attended weekly dance classes, while the other half didn't. The girls who took the dance classes improved their mental health and reported a boost in mood—positive effects that lasted up to eight months after the classes ended.

(A. Duberg; L. Hagberg; H. Sunvisson; M. Moller. "Influencing Self-rated Health Among Adolescent Girls With Dance Intervention." JAMA Pediatrics 167. 2013.)

Dance therapy is suggested as treatment for emotional and therapeutic support, as dance allows individuals to connect to their innermost emotions and minds. People, music, dancing = fun. And, if I've said it once, I've said it a million times: "There is no better path to social mixing than dancing."

I've always encouraged boys and men to overcome the paranoia of others making fun of their dancing style and get on the floor. Dancing, like any other physical activity, improves with practice. Most ladies love to dance, and they are more than willing to help build a guy's confidence and his ability to move. Fast dance; slow dance. Lead and follow. Just dance. Enjoy the music and the rhythm, and soon you will be smiling on the inside and on the outside.

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