The “ballroom” secret to slowing Parkinson’s and aging gracefully

Dance your troubles away 

My frustration with conventional medicine’s preference for “magic bullet” solutions (over lifestyle interventions) continues to grow. 

But there are still some conditions that even Big Pharma hasn’t claimed to conquer. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is one. 

And Parkinson’s disease (PD)—a progressive neurological condition that affects movement—is another. 

The symptoms of PD—which include tremors, stiffness, and slowing of movement—begin gradually and worsen over time. And while there are medications available to slow this progression, there is no cure.  

Of course, these medications come with side effects—and eventually, they lose their effectiveness. And that’s what makes this emerging research so important.  

Not just because it offers hope against a progressive disease where options are limited. But because it’s another exciting example of how staying healthy doesn’t always have to be hard work… 

It can be downright FUN 

And that goes for anyone, whether or not you’re suffering from PD. Let me explain… 

Dancing stalls deterioration  

A team of Canadian researchers recently investigated how weekly dance practice impacts symptoms in Parkinson’s patients over the long term.  

They recruited 16 people with mild PD and an average age of 69 years. All participants attended weekly dance classes for three years between 2014 and 2017. These classes lasted an hour and fifteen minutes, and covered movements from a variety of dance styles—modern, ballet, tap, and social dancing. 

During the same time period, the researchers followed a control group of 16 Parkinson’s patients who didn’t take dance classes—matched by age, symptom severity, and duration of illness.   

Over the three years, the researchers assessed both psychological and motor symptoms, as well as basic functions like speech, chewing, and swallowing.  

In the end, patients who attended the weekly dance classes experienced significant symptom improvements—in speech, tremors, balance, and rigidity.1 And unlike their non-dancing peers, neither movement nor psychological symptoms declined throughout the three-year study.   

This is especially important, because the first five years after a Parkinson’s diagnosis is typically when motor symptoms accumulate the fastest. But analysis showed that dancing would likely keep disease progression stable with five years of regular practice. 

Memory and music make the difference  

This isn’t the first time that research has shown the power of dancing against PD. As part of a different study published back in 2015, researchers found that dancing the Argentine tango had many of the same benefits.  

This study followed 40 men and women with Parkinson’s who attended studio classes with professional dance teachers for 12 weeks. And just like the first study I shared, results showed significant improvements in both balance and functional ability—with the added bonus of cognitive benefits and lower fatigue.2  

So, what is it about dancing that makes all the difference?  

Well, scientists believe that it’s more than just the regular physical activity that keeps Parkinson’s symptoms at bay. Sure, regular exercise is key—but there are at least two distinct elements of dancing that make it particularly powerful.  

For one thing, there are the specific, rhythmic steps involved that can be especially beneficial for both stabilizing gait and preventing falls. Not only that, but the memory, attention, and multitasking required to learn and practice new choreography can help sharpen the dancer’s cognitive skills as well. 

And last, but certainly not least, there’s the combination of music and interaction accompanying dance. Music itself can lift mood and stimulate brain activity—and this effect is only enhanced with socializing, support, and group dynamics.     

Benefits beyond Parkinson’s prevention 

Obviously, dancing is particularly powerful medicine for Parkinson’s patients—but research also shows that it packs a punch against the pitfalls of aging for anyone, whether you’re struggling with chronic disease or not.  

One 2016 study of 54 older, sedentary, Spanish-speaking adults randomly assigned subjects to attend either a twice-a-week Latin dance program for four months, or a health education program. They took a walking test before and after the study, and answered questions about their physical activity levels. 

By the end of the study, the dancing group walked faster, and their physical activity levels jumped from 650 minutes to nearly 818 minutes per week.3 (The subjects in the health education classes showed significantly smaller improvements.) 

Of course, it’s not particularly surprising that dancing would make you more agile and active. But if you’re one of the many people in this country suffering from chronic pain, you may think these benefits are out of your reach.  

Fortunately—that couldn’t be further from the truth… 

Dance your pain away (literally) 

As part of a 2014 study, researchers at St. Louis University recruited 34 senior citizens with an average age of 80 years for a 12-week study. All of the participants reported pain or stiffness in their knees or hips—mostly due to arthritis. 

Half of the group danced for 45 minutes, twice a week, in a program customized for older arthritis sufferers. The other half didn’t receive any dance therapy, but engaged in other similar forms of exercise.  

In the end, the dancers reported less pain. In fact, their consumption of pain drugs dropped by a whopping 39 percent—whereas those who didn’t dance reported taking 21 percent more pain medication.4  

As in other studies, the dancers were also able to walk faster. And this is an especially important benefit in older adults, as a slow gait is linked to a higher risk of falls—and all the complications that come with them (sometimes lethal).  

Other research has demonstrated this same benefit—better balance, gait, and overall functionality—among seniors participating in regular dance therapy sessions.5 And because one out of every four Americans over the age of 65 falls in any given year—and every 20 minutes, an older adult will die because of it—I’d say this is a pretty big deal. 

But while increased mobility and agility may be the most obvious perk of dancing for exercise, it’s far from the only one. The fact is, dancing is just plain good for your quality of life, too. 

In fact, yet another three-month study of seniors taking ballet classes revealed flexibility and posture improvements—along with higher energy levels and a greater sense of achievement.6 Plus, the dancers were happier, with a stronger sense of community and connection (which is especially critical in the age of coronavirus).  

Now, let’s move on to another period of life when dancing delivers particularly powerful benefits… 

A new lease on life after menopause 

It’s no secret that the transition to menopause can introduce new health problems for many women. Postmenopausal women are more likely to see increases in belly fat, experience poorer heart health (thanks to unsteady triglyceride and cholesterol levels), and have a heightened risk of falls and broken bones (due to declines in muscle mass).   

Ultimately, this adds up to declines in mental health, too—with drops in self-image and self-esteem adding fuel to the fire. So if something as simple—and as fun—as dancing can counteract those effects? Well, it deserves a dedicated place in any older woman’s schedule. 

Get this: As part of a recent study published in the 
journal Menopause, researchers recruited 36 postmenopausal women with a mean age of 57 years. Subjects danced for 90 minutes, three times weekly, for 16 weeks.   

Researchers evaluated a host of parameters—including body fat, lean body mass, cholesterol levels, functional fitness levels, self-image, and self-esteem—at both the beginning and end of the study.    

Ultimately, they found that dancing lowered cholesterol levels, boosted both fitness and body composition, and increased self-esteem in the process.7    

The bottom line? Whether you’re battling PD, fighting against chronic pain, struggling through menopause, or simply wanting to stay nimble (and strong) as you age, this is one case where you really can dance your troubles away. So lace up those shoes and hit the dance floor. You can find a variety of dance studios in a nearby location, as well as online classes, through a quick internet search. Or—you can always turn to YouTube!   

References: 

  1. BearssKA, et al. “Parkinson’s Disease Motor Symptom Progression Slowed with Multisensory Dance Learning over 3-Years: A Preliminary Longitudinal Investigation.” Brain Sci. 2021 Jul 7;11(7):895.  
  2. RomenetsSR, et al. “Tango for treatment of motor and non-motor manifestations in Parkinson’s disease: A randomized control study.” Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 2015; 23 (2): 175 DOI: 10.1016/j.ctim.2015.01.015 
  3. American Heart Association. “Latin dancing may have health benefits for older adults.” Science Daily. 03/04/2016. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160304215730.htm)
  4. KrampeJ, et al. “Does dance-based therapy increase gait speed in older adults with chronic lower extremity pain: A feasibility study.” Geriatric Nursing, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.gerinurse.2014.03.008 
  5. KrampeJ, et al.  Dance-Based Therapy in a Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly. Nursing Administration Quarterly, 34(2):156-161, April/June 2010 DOI: 10.1097/NAQ.0b013e3181d91851 
  6. Queensland University of Technology. “Older people advised to dance for better posture, flexibility, energy and happiness.” Science Daily, 04/05/2018. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180405093254.htm)
  7. Teixeira GR, et al. “Dance practice modifies functional fitness, lipid profile, and self-image in postmenopausal women.”Menopause, 2021; Publish Ahead of Print DOI:10.1097/GME.0000000000001818 

CLOSE
CLOSE