We don’t often hear ballroom dancing recommended as a way to protect older brains, yet it’s true: seniors who danced three to four times a week — especially those who ballroom danced — had a 75 percent lower risk of dementia compared with people who did not dance at all, according to a study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.
That’s a pretty impressive health statistic. The lead geriatrician on the study says, “Dancing is a complex activity…that improves blood flow to the brain, which has been shown to improve brain connections. It also provides mental challenges.”
What’s more, dancing was the only physical activity that decreased dementia risk (others activities included playing a musical instrument, reading, and playing board games.)
What Makes Dancing Different
While jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, card games and board games all engage the brain, they don’t engage the body. Dancing is not only great exercise, it entails memorizing movements and routines and reacting in the moment, particularly in partner dances, explains psychiatrist Heidi Rossetti. Jogging or swimming, by contrast, don’t require a lot of mental involvement to perform; like the Nike slogan, you “Just do it.”
Research has also shown that social connection helps alleviate depression and reduces the risk of dementia. Since dancing is inherently social, this trifecta of physical, mental and social stimulation makes dancing the gold standard for cognitive health as we age.
Besides which, only about a third of those over 65 get the recommended amount of exercise, which is half an hour a day, five times a week.
A recently retired ballroom dancing aficionado, who worked with seniors throughout his career as a reverse mortgage professional, weighs in with this counsel:
“My wife and I love to go ballroom dancing and belong to a national organization called USA Dance. We visit other club locations when we travel and dance at their open dance events when we can. We hold dances twice a month, and most of us find other places to go at least once a week. I bring this up because it is a terrific function for middle-aged couples and singles (Boomers), and provides opportunities to meet others in a safe social environment. It also keeps you in pretty good physical shape, dancing Latin and ballroom for three hours at a stretch.
“One of our outreach functions is arranging basic dance lessons as volunteers at senior living facilities. We did one not long ago and had about a dozen participants who enjoyed learning the cha-cha. They first wanted to watch us (my wife and myself) dance for them, and then we held the class, which lasted another thirty minutes. We all had a blast, and one lady even had a walker to steady her balance. The oldest person there was 97!”
That’s pretty inspiring.
Our Neuroplastic Brains
You may find it equally surprising that our brains have a high degree of neuroplasticity. This doesn’t mean they’re made of plastic, but rather, that our brains change and evolve throughout our lives. In other words, you can teach an old brain new tricks — like learning to use computers, tablets and smartphones in one’s 70s, 80s, or even 90s — and the very act of learning something new and complex will nourish and renew a senior’s grey matter.
So unlike the fascination evinced by younger people glued to their screens, for an aging brain, learning to boot up and log on will actually reap cognitive benefits.
Learning something new and complex, like ballroom dancing, creates new neural pathways in the brain. This way, if a senior’s brain experiences a roadblock at some point, it can easily find another stepping-stone to cross the mental creek. Because dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — it really boosts neural connectivity.
Invitation to the Dance
Ready to give dancing a go? For older adults — especially if you’ve been inactive, or less physically active than the fitness guidelines for healthy adults recommend — it’s important to ensure you’re prepared for this level of activity.
First, get your doctor’s OK to step up to dancing. Since lower body weakness and poor balance become more serious risks the older we become, your physician will likely want to test your physical fitness level based on the National Institute on Aging’s four-pronged approach to senior balance and overall fitness:
- Endurance. The NIA recommends slowly building up endurance by engaging in moderate physical activity to start, such as walking for 10-15 minutes at a comfortable pace, or gardening, cycling, or yes, dancing — whatever is appropriate to your current state of physical fitness.
- Strength. Muscles grow stronger the more we use them. Even people in their 90s can improve muscle tone. There is a wide range of upper and lower body strengthening exercises for seniors, from gripping a tennis ball to wall push-ups to leg raises using a chair.
- Balance and strength go hand-in-hand. In China, millions of adults of all ages — including many people of very advanced age — start the day with tai chi, an ancient practice of slow, precise movements and breathing exercises that improves bone and heart health, promotes better sleep, and is an excellent way to create and maintain balance.
- Flexibility. Gentle stretching exercises for every part of an older body complement balance and strength training. Many of the exercises for all four types of fitness are related, and can be performed in sequence. A senior might even develop his or her own enjoyable routine, and watch as their overall fitness improves.
How The Kensington Keeps You in Shape
Here at The Kensington Falls Church, our ever-changing calendar of events can keep a resident dancing from one activity to another all day long. Staying active and forming new friendships have been shown to reduce stress, preserve wellness, keep the mind sharp and increase feelings of worth, especially for seniors.
Our life enrichment programs aim to appeal to all, and celebrate the uniqueness in everyone who lives here. And, we offer “Dancing Queens” every Tuesday at Happy Hour with Kitty Janney, our Director of Community Outreach. All the residents and Kensington team members get together and cut a rug!
Come visit us soon. We guarantee you’ll dance with delight at the many opportunities our residents enjoy to stay physically, mentally, emotionally and socially fit!