I was listening to a podcast yesterday on “Prevention.” It dealt with preventing all sorts of dire events, both in the community and for ourselves, personally. There was, not surprisingly, a segment on Alzheimer’s disease which for many people is among the most frightening of dire events that could befall us or a loved one sometime in our lives. As many people know, current thinking suggests that Alzheimer’s is caused by a build-up of plaques in the brain that interferes with synapses—the neural communication connections among brain cells. Our brains have trillions of synapses. Moreover, we have the ability to continually create new synapses throughout our life, constantly “rewiring” our brains and creating new neural pathways. This process of ongoing rewiring is referred to as “neuroplasticity.”
One study of nuns found that, on autopsy post-mortem, despite the presence of considerable plaques, the nuns displayed no symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. What researchers concluded was that the nuns kept their minds busy, and in doing so, encouraged the process of creating new, disease-free synapses. Brain processing merely bypassed the areas that were blocked (so to speak), and kept them thinking clearly throughout their lives.
What does all this have to do with dance? Another study sought to understand the connections between various types of physical activities and preventing brain degeneration via this process of neuroplasticity. Among the most effective physical activities for brain health was improvisational, lead-follow dancing. That is, dancing where there are not set patterns or routines or positions to go through, but rather dancing in which partners respond to the music in the moment, and to each other. Like salsa. (Other forms noted: swing and tango). Repetitive physical activities in which forming new synapse connections was not required had no positive effects on slowing or preventing the onset of cognitive decline. And certainly, a lifestyle in which there is little opportunity to learn and respond is the worst. In short, use it or lose it!
Learning to dance and enjoying social dancing with a variety of partners now has additional benefits beyond the obvious improvements in physical, emotional, and social health. It also contributes to long-lasting cognitive health as well. Moreover, it’s an activity that one can continue to enjoy well into the so-called golden years, preserving body, mind, and social connection.
See you on the dance floor—hopefully for many more years to come!