For many years people over have praised the health benefits of dancing, summing it up as
a great way for 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 well-being.
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.
A New England Journal of Medicine reported on the effects of recreational activities on mental acuity in aging. 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 none.
They studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards
and playing musical instruments. They studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.
The study showed a very surprising fact. Most of the activities had very little effect on protecting the
mind 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 partook in more mentally and physically strenuous activities benefitted 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%.
Dancing indicated the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.
These studies seem to indicate that certain portions of the brain related to these functions and
activities are the Cerebral Cortex and Hippocampus. These parts of the brain are able to rewire
themselves based upon their use.
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 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 now begin to ask ourselves the questions:
Why is dancing better than other activities for improving mental capabilities?
Does this apply to all kinds of dancing, or is one kind of dancing better than another?
And 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, which have over the decades
shown that we increase our mental capacity by exercising our cognitive processes.
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.
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 routine memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical
One way to do that is to learn something new... 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 processes.