Dance, cognition and ageing

Dr Michela Vecchi, our Associate Professor of Economics, and dancer, discusses the physical and, more importantly, mental improvements dancing can bring.

In recent years, we have seen an increasing interest in dance; Strictly Come Dancing has become an all-time favourite Saturday night show, the provision of ballet type fitness classes has risen dramatically, and the Royal Academy of Dance, usually associated with young girls and boys training for their grades, is now offering classes to women over the age of 55 under the appealing name of Silver Swans.

The main reason behind this new dance-exercise rage? Dance not only exercises the body but also does wonders to your mind.

Physical exercise, dance and health

The benefits of physical exercise on mental and physical health have been known since the ancient Greek and Roman times, as summarised by the motto ‘mens sana in corpore sano’. Contemporary studies carried out by psychologists, neuroscientists and physiologists agree that being active and engaging in a variety of physical activities promotes not only physical health and wellbeing, but also cognition. Cognition includes those mental processes that assist us in everyday life, like learning, remembering, speaking, moving and interacting with others. These abilities decline with age and, in the most severe cases, this decline leads to degenerative conditions like dementia, Alzheimer and Parkinson’s Disease.

Although physical exercise is good, recent studies are increasingly showing that dance has additional benefits compared to a wide range of physical activities, particularly in reversing the signs of aging in the brain. There is fast growing evidence on the role of dance in preventing cognitive decline in older individuals affected by Parkinson’s Disease and dementia. Improvements in balance, reduced motor impairment, and general improvements in the quality of life, have been recorded in several studies.   

Professor of Economics Rafi Eldor, from the University of Tel Aviv, provides a personal and inspiring account of his experience with Parkinson’s disease and of how dancing has helped him coping with the condition. After his diagnosis and with no prior dance experience, he decided to fight the disease by challenging his body and “becoming a dancer rather than a PD patient”, and the results have been amazing.

The benefits of dance have not only been recorded in individuals affected by dementia but also in healthy elderly individuals. Studies comparing the effects of dance to other forms of physical exercise, such as cycling, Nordic walking, and aerobics show that dance induces additional improvements in memory, learning and balance. The benefits of dance have not only been assessed in relation to other physical exercise practices. A major study conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City shows that the improvement in cognitive abilities related to dance is higher compared to other cognitive activities such as reading, writing or doing crossword puzzles. The study concludes that the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia is frequent dancing.   

Why is dance so effective?

It is still not clear why dance is so effective in improving cognition, but the advantages are likely to be rooted in the stimulation of different brain functions, which are necessary to learn new steps and routines, to move in time with the music, to balance and express emotions. It is well known that the brain is stimulated when learning something new and in dance this stimulation comes from different types of activities. Going back to the popular TV show, it is easy to see that ballroom dancing requires contestants to learn new styles and techniques and adapt them to the movements of the partner and to different types of music. Dancing is not just a form of entertainment, and the benefits of this complex set of actions should not be underestimated.

Why wait for old age?

Although scientific work has primarily focused on elderly individuals, you do not have to wait for old age to start dancing. On average, cognitive abilities start to decline in the mid-thirties as part of the natural ageing process. This does not limit our everyday life and  forgetting a wedding anniversary may not trigger a major family crisis; however, it is a signal that our brain is slowing down.

The dance-exercise rage has led to the provision of several types of classes for adults that can easily fit around busy work and family schedules. It has also contributed to overcoming the stigma attached to dance, particularly regarding age, class, race, gender, level of physical activity and appearance.

Dance is not only for the young with slim and supple bodies, but it is an alternative way to exercise, open to all ages and levels of abilities. Why not give it a try?