"Ballroom dancing is the best step to avoid Alzheimer's",
The research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and was carried out over a 21-year period at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, New York, led by Dr. Joe Verghese, assistant professor of neurology.
Can Dancing Make You Smarter? Ward Off Dementia? Check it Out!
Use It or Lose It: Dancing Makes You Smarter---Richard Powers
For hundreds of years dance manuals and other writings have lauded the
health benefits of dancing, usually as physical exercise. More
recently we've seen research on further health benefits of dancing, such
as stress reduction and increased serotonin level, with its sense of
Then most recently we've heard of another benefit: Frequent dancing
apparently makes us smarter. A major study added to the growing
evidence that stimulating one's mind can ward off Alzheimer's disease
and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit.
You've probably heard about the New England Journal of Medicine report
on the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity in aging.
Here it is in a nutshell.
The 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. Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in
aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease.
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
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
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%
People who played the hardest gained the most: For example, seniors
who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a 47% lower risk of
dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week.
Playing golf - 0%
Dancing frequently - 76%.
That was the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive
Quoting Dr. Joseph Coyle, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who
wrote an accompanying commentary:
"The cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these
activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based
upon their use."
And from the study itself, Dr. Katzman proposed these persons are more
resistant to the effects of dementia as a result of having greater
cognitive reserve and increased complexity of neuronal synapses. Like
education, participation in some leisure activities lowers the risk of
dementia by improving cognitive reserve.
Our brain constantly rewires its neural pathways, as needed. If it
doesn't need to, then it won't.
Aging and Memory
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. So as we age, we learn to parallel
process, to come up with synonyms to go around these roadblocks. (Or
maybe we don't learn to do this, and just become a dimmer bulb.)
The key here is Dr. Katzman's emphasis on the complexity of our neuronal
synapses. More is better. 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 our
When I was studying the creative process as a grad student at Stanford,
I came across the perfect analogy to this: The more stepping stones
there are across the creek, the easier it is to cross in your own style.
The focus of that aphorism was creative thinking, to find as many
alternative paths as possible to a creative solution. But as we age,
parallel processing becomes more critical. Now it's no longer a
matter of style, it's a matter of survival - getting across the creek
at all. 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.
The Albert Einstein College of Medicine study shows that we need to keep
as many of those paths active as we can, while also generating new
paths, to maintain the complexity of our neuronal synapses.
We immediately ask two questions: Why is dancing better than other
activities for improving mental capabilities?
Does this mean all kinds of dancing, or is one kind of dancing better
That's where this particular study falls short. It doesn't answer
these questions as a stand-alone study. Fortunately, it isn't a
stand-alone study. It's one of many studies, over decades, which have
shown that we increase our mental capacity by exercising our cognitive
Intelligence: Use it or lose it. And it's the other studies which
fill in the gaps in this one. Looking at all of these studies
together lets us understand the bigger picture.
Some of this is discussed here (the page you probably just came from)
which looks at intelligence in greater depth. The essence of
intelligence is making decisions. And the concluding 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. Don't worry about the probability that you'll never use
it in the future. Take a class to challenge your mind. It will
stimulate the connectivity of your brain by generating the need for new
pathways. Difficult and even frustrating classes are better for you,
as they will create a greater need for new neural pathways. Then take a
dance class, which can be even better. Dancing integrates several
brain functions at once, increasing connectivity. Dancing
simultaneously involves kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional
What Kind of Dancing?
Let's go back to the study:
Bicycling, swimming or playing golf - 0% reduced risk of dementia. But
doesn't golf require rapid-fire decision-making? No, not if you're a
long-time player. You made most of the decisions when you first
started playing, years ago. Now the game is mostly refining your
technique. It can be good physical exercise, but the study showed it
led to no improvement in mental acuity.
Therefore take the kinds of dance classes where you must make as many
split-second decisions as possible. That's key to maintaining true
Does any kind of dancing lead to increased mental acuity? No, not all
forms of dancing will produce this benefit. Not dancing which, like
golf or swimming, mostly works on style or retracing the same memorized
paths. The key is the decision-making. Remember, Jean Piaget
suggested that intelligence is what we use when we don't already know
what to do.
We wish that 25 years ago the Albert Einstein College of Medicine
thought of doing side-by-side comparisons of different kinds of dancing,
to find out which was better. But we can figure it out by looking at
who they studied: senior citizens 75 and older, beginning in 1980.
Those who danced in that particular population were former Roaring
Twenties dancers (back in 1980) and then former Swing Era dancers
(today), so the kind of dancing most of them continued to do in
retirement was what they began when they were young: freestyle social
dancing -- basic foxtrot, swing, waltz and maybe some Latin.
I've been watching senior citizens dance all of my life, from my parents
(who met at a Tommy Dorsey dance), to retirement communities, to the
Roseland Ballroom in New York. I almost never see memorized sequences
or patterns on the dance floor. I mostly see easygoing, fairly simple
social dancing - freestyle lead and follow. .
But freestyle social dancing isn't that simple! It requires a lot of
split-second decision-making, in both the lead and follow roles.
I need to digress here: I want to point out that I'm not demonizing
memorized sequence dancing or style-focused pattern-based ballroom
dancing. I sometimes enjoy sequence dances for several good reasons
Plus there are stress-reduction benefits of any kind of dancing,
cardiovascular benefits of physical exercise, and even further benefits
of feeling connected to a community of dancers. So all dancing is
But when it comes to preserving mental acuity, then some forms are
better than others. When we talk of intelligence (use it or lose it)
then the more decision-making we can bring into our dancing, the better.
Who Benefits More, Women or Men?
In social dancing, the follow role automatically gains a benefit, by
making hundreds of split-second decisions as to what to do next. As I
mentioned on this page, women don't "follow", they interpret the signals
their partners are giving them, and this requires intelligence and
decision-making, which is active, not passive. 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. This is great for staying
But men, you can also match her degree of decision-making if you choose
to do so. (1) Really notice your partner and what works best for
her. Notice what is comfortable for her, where she is already going,
which moves are successful with her and what 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. Make more
decisions more often. Intelligence: use it or lose it.
And gentlemen, the huge side-benefit is that your partners will have
much more fun dancing with you when you are attentive to their dancing
and constantly adjusting for their comfort and continuity of motion.
Finally, remember that this study made another suggestion: do it
often. Recall that seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week
had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles
once a week. If you can't take classes or go out dancing four times a
week, then dance as much as you can.
More is Better
And do it now, the sooner the better. It's essential to start
building your cognitive reserve now. Some day you'll need as many of
those stepping stones across the creek as possible. Don't wait -
start building them now.
Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we are here we may as
Love, in all its forms, is everything.
Enjoy a Weekend Festival of
Big Band Dancing
Beautiful Ballrooms Large Dance Floors Great Bands
the Best Places to Dance
2 Fabulous Sites
a big band dance weekend