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Dancing Your Way to Better Health

Ballroom Dancing May Help Mind, Body, and Spirit

Brain Teaser

Dance can challenge your mind as well as your muscles.

At least one observational study has shown sharper minds with ballroom dancing.

The study appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine two years ago. Joe Verghese, MD, and colleagues studied 469 people who were at least 75 years old.

At the study's start, they answered surveys about mental and physical activities, like doing crossword puzzles or dancing. Back then, none had dementia.

Five years later, 124 had dementia. Frequent dancers had a reduced risk of dementia compared with those who rarely or never danced.

Of 11 physical activities considered, only dancing was tied to a lower dementia risk, Verghese tells WebMD.

Most dancers did ballroom dancing, says Verghese. He's an assistant neurology professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

The Dancing Brain

How might ballroom dancing help the brain? Verghese outlines three possibilities:

  • Increased blood flow to the brain from the physical exercise
  • Less stress, depression, and loneliness from dancing's social aspect
  • Mental challenges (memorizing steps, working with your partner)

"Dance, in many ways, is a complex activity. It's not just purely physical," says Verghese.

An 'Exciting' Option

No one is prescribing ballroom dancing, and Verghese's study doesn't claim dancing drove the results.

To get real proof, a study could assign one group of people to ballroom dancing, comparing them to inactive people.

So says Carl Cotman, PhD. He directs the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California, Irvine.

"There aren't any experimental models in animals that would be equivalent to ballroom dancing, that's for sure," says Cotman. His rat studies have shown brain benefits from voluntary running.

If dance is aerobic enough, it could aid the brain, says Cotman. The social and mental aspects could also help.

"You've got togetherness, and ... training the brain to do a new motor skill," says Cotman. "I think it's pretty exciting."

No one knows how much or what kind of exercise the brain needs, says Cotman. He'd like to see such studies done.

Meanwhile, "there's no evidence that it's going to hurt anything," says Cotman.

Check Your Ego at the Door

Here's some advice for beginners from New York dance therapist Jane Wilson Cathcart, LMSW, ADTR, CMA:

  • Look for a good teacher who emphasizes what you can do, not your limits.
  • Don't be a perfectionist about it.
  • Don't worry about your size. Dance is for everyone.
  • Get into the music, as well as the movement.

"Take in all the good feedback you're getting and give your inner judge a couple of dollars to go to the movies," says Cathcart.

"We are usually our own worst critic," says Cathcart. "Think of how many other times your critical judge has limited you from doing something."

New skills can bring confidence. At parties and social events, dancers may head to the dance floor feeling good about themselves without a martini's encouragement, Richards jokes.

"Lay the pathwork of positivity through it," says Cathcart. "The coolest dance begins with one step. The rest will follow."

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Reviewed on January 27, 2006

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