The joy of dance in the aging brain

The brain transforms throughout the lifetime. Recent studies show that new cells are being created in the brain all the way to the old age.

Over the years, many changes occur in the brain which are part of natural aging. However, also different life events, and frequently occurring every-day activities, thoughts and feelings have an influence on the structure and the function of the brain.

Even more studies promote the benefits of versatile cognitive, social and athletic activities in slowing down the natural aging processes in the brain ― not to forget proper nutrition and rest, which are also important factors.

When the life expectancy in populations increases, it is even more important to pay attention to the maintenance of the brain health of an individual and his/her overall ability to keep up the daily routines. In addition to the physical abilities, it is crucial to maintain good quality of life in the old age. A rehabilitative multi-domain video game, which develops several brain activities simultaneously, has given encouraging results that the natural aging processes in the brain can be slowed down by adequate training.

The video games are, however, lacking two indispensable sources of well-being: Physical exercise and authentic social interaction.

How remarkable results could we gain if the type of training evoked by the video games would be combined to collective physical exercise? In the study of the video game, five-week-long training was enough to induce changes in the brain which could be detected a year after finishing the training. What if the joy of dance would catch a person on the verge of retirement, and not only for weeks, but even for years?

During my PhD studies, I noticed that the brains of the participants reacted stronger when watching the dance of a real human figure when compared to the dance of a stick figure. In addition, the brains of the professional dancers, when compared to musicians and laymen, reacted faster to the changes in music and were synchronized more efficiently on lower frequencies when listening to music and when watching a dance piece. These lower frequencies are associated to higher brain processes related to memory, emotions, social bonding, and spatial awareness and navigation.

It has been suggested that dancing slows down the reduction of the white matter, which is assumed to play the key role in the age-related functional decline of the brain. The dance-related improvements in the white matter occurred in the fornix which is a bunch of neurons transmitting information from the hippocampus, known as the memory center, to the other regions of the brain.

Although all kind of dancing can be expected to benefit the brain, future studies are needed to understand what kind of dance is the most efficient for the maintenance of the good quality of life and brain health among elderly. To respond to these needs, I have developed a WiseMotion method which is based on the newest research results in cognitive and affective neuroscience.

Age-related changes in the brain are inevitable. However, these changes bring along new skills and advantages, not to mention the precious human value of life experience. When aging, some of the connections between the neural networks enhance, which has been associated to improved creative thinking. When getting older, one indeed can find a new creative side in oneself! Several studies show that creative activities, from music, theater, visual arts to dance, elevate the mood. Currently, the dance studies suggest that when creatively moving together with someone, not only the mood is elevated, but these joyful moments bring along more profound positive effects.

Illnesses of the aging brain, such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease, have increased at an alarming rate over the past decades. Dance has been proposed to help in treating such diseases, especially in alleviating their diverse symptoms. The international Dance for Parkinson’s program, for example, has been found very beneficial. Importantly, dance seem to have something special that improves the general symptoms of Parkinson’s disease from motility to mood. In a comparative study, tango dance and waltz improved the motility in Parkinson’s patients. Curiously, the temperamental tango with finely-tuned movements improved the symptoms more efficiently than the lingering waltz with broad flowing motion. In addition, dancing, as well as playing an instrument or playing board games, has been associated to the diminished risk of dementia in elderly.

The brain research of the benefits of dance in treating illnesses of the aging brain is just in the beginning. Let’s stay in the forefront in preventing memory illnesses, improving attention and rehabilitating the brain in elderly with a dance method which combines the ancient to the cutting-edge future!

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