Dancing and Cerebral Health


Dancing and Cerebral Health

Noah Crees
Published by the PIT Journal: 


My paper discusses how the human body can treat itself from disease and other risks through dancing. This information is vital as the baby boom generation enters an age associated with heightened risk of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. To prove that dancing and positive cerebral health share a connection, I have used a plethora of studies that focus on one aspect of how dancing affects cognitive function. The studies collectively show that dancing can reduce risk of dementia, improve mental conditions (i.e. depression, low self-esteem), and remove the condition of dizziness. The experiments were performed over extended periods of time, had control and experimental groups, and used statistical analysis of error. The paper describes how dancing could affect the brain on a neuronal level. It also states the implications from these studies, including the cost of surgery, socio-economic factors, and participation from physically disabled people.


When thinking about how to prevent disease, most people immediately point to scientists to manufacture cures. This paper examines how a number of studies completed on dancing and positive cerebral health indicates a way for the human body to treat itself. Aging is known to cause a regressive effect on mental capabilities such as memory, perception, and motor behavior.1 As larger numbers of the population age, the need for research to find preventive measures against mental regression and allow independent function into advanced age has grown into a much greater concern than ever before. In 2011, the first of the baby boom generation, which comprise 13% of the total population, reached age 65. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s “2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures,” people aged 65 and older are considered to be at a markedly greater risk for dementia and other cognitive diseases. The report also states that by 2025, the number of people age 65 or older with Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to reach 7.1 million—a 40% increase in comparison to the five million people currently affected. In an effort to combat these disturbingly large numbers, hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into funding research to alleviate or cure Alzheimer’s disease.2 In the course of this research, a range of studies have found that dancing may be capable of alleviating mental disorders, improving self-worth, and progressing independent function.

Dancing and a reduced risk of dementia show a strong correlation according to multiple studies, including one by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. This study, which lasted for 21 years, measured mental acuity in senior citizens aged 75 to 85 who did not already have a type of mental illness. The study measured subjects by the Blessed Information-Memory-Concentration test, which correlates with stages of Alzheimer’s disease. To measure mental acuity, the test subjects took the test twice, before and after participating in leisure activities. The leisure activities were separated into two categories: cognitive and physical. Cognitive activities included reading, doing crossword puzzles, and playing cards. Physical activities included swimming, bicycling, and dancing. Out of all tested activities, frequent dancing had the largest impact on improving total cognitive skills. The study showed that dancing correlated with a 76% reduced risk of dementia among the test subjects, which was the highest among all tested activities, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. Other health benefits observed in the dancing group included stress reduction, increased amount of serotonin, and a stronger sense of wellbeing. Lead researcher Dr. Robert Katzman hypothesized that these results occurred because the subjects acquired a deeper cognitive reserve and more complex neuronal synapses. Dr. Joseph Coyle, a physician who commented on the study, agreed, adding, “the cerebral cortex and hippocampus, which are critical to these activities, are remarkably plastic, and they rewire themselves based upon their use.”1 Not only does the study reiterate that dancing shares a relationship with cerebral health, it also suggests that dancing may provide greater benefits compared to similar activities.

A complementary study published by the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in 2010 found another connection between dancing and cerebral health. Out of a group of subjects aged 65 to 94 years, those who had danced for years (referred to as the Amateur Dancing, AD, group) “lacked individuals showing poor performance, which was frequently observed for the CG [those who had not danced previously] group."1 According to the researchers, the AD group reached higher scores in “everyday competence.” This was defined as independence in activities of daily living, mobility, social relations, general health status and life contentment and required both cognitive and perceptual health. “This observation implies that maintaining an active lifestyle into old age can preserve cognitive, motor and perceptual abilities and prevent them from degradation, but might not drive levels of performance beyond those typically found in aged populations,” the researchers wrote.1 They also added that, similar to the previously discussed study, dancing appears to have a more beneficial effect than other activities such as exercising, walking or playing an instrument. The researchers speculated this effect occurred because “dance has the advantage to combine many diverse features including physical activity, social and emotional interaction, each of them well-documented to have beneficial effects.”1 By comparing the superior performances of people who danced to people who did not, this study emphasized the notion that dancing has a direct influence on cerebral health.

Contributing to the theory that dancing improves cognitive wellness, studies have observed that dancing seems to improve mental conditions such as depression, low self-esteem, and tiredness. A study published by JAMA Pediatrics in 2013 tracked the progress of adolescent girls who had internalizing problems like these. They were required to fill out an extensive, baseline questionnaire that asked questions about lifestyle, emotional stress, and self-rated health. Self-rated health (SRH) was the strongest indicator for the status of the adolescents. It includes general health, perceptions of symptoms, and vulnerability. The value for SRH is placed on a one to five scale – one signifying very poor and five signifying very good. Fifty-nine girls participated in a twenty-month dance intervention that organized 75 minute classes twice a week, while another 53 girls were placed in a control group that was asked only to fill out the same questionnaire, and received movie theater tickets. Follow-up questionnaires were recorded at eight, 12, and 20 months after the baseline questionnaires were completed. The results show that intervention group consistently filled out higher SRH scores than did the control group for the follow-up questionnaires, which illustrates dancing’s influence over mood, stress, and wellbeing.

Though less focused on the correlation between dancing and dementia specifically, another study strongly supports dancing’s ability to influence the brain. The Imperial College London found a direct correlation between dancing and a lack of dizziness in 2013. Dizziness is a primary cause of falls among the elderly. The feeling of dizziness starts from vestibular organs in the inner ear. The fluid-filled environment senses head rotation with tiny hairs that detect fluid movement. When one turns rapidly, the fluid moves continuously. This makes a person feel as though they are spinning after they turn vigorously. Researchers explained notable differences in the brains of ballet dancers that aid them in managing the effects of dizziness whenever they complete pirouettes. Years of training enable the dancers to suppress signals from balance organs in the inner ear linked to the cerebellum, according to the study published in the Cerebral Cortex. For the study, the college recruited 29 female ballet dancers and 20 female rowers who were all aggregately of the same fitness level. The subjects were spun around in a chair located in a dark room. Afterwards, the subjects had to turn a handle in time with the effects of the spinning after they had stopped. Researchers also measured eye reflexes and took MRI scans of the subjects’ brain structures. Both eye reflexes and the perception of spinning lasted a shorter time for the dancers than the rowers. Brain scans revealed that differences between the two groups appeared in two parts of the brain—an area in the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex. That area in the cerebellum receives input from the vestibular organs, while the cerebral cortex is responsible for the recognition of dizziness. Dr. Barry Seemungal of the Department of Medicine at Imperial explained, “It’s not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input. Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy.”4 In essence, this study supports the conclusion found in previous studies that dancing may in fact be able to spur significant cerebral changes.

Beyond the findings of these studies, and possibly the true driving force behind dancing’s positive effects on aging, dancing appears to stimulate nerve growth factors, as demonstrated in a study published by the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Nerve growth factors are proteins critical for the maintenance of sensory neurons, which transmit information such as sight and sound to the brain.5 Without growth factors, sensory neurons would experience a programmed cellular death and two of the five major senses of humans would be lost. There is also proof that growth factors circulate in the body and have a role in maintaining normal body conditions.6 As a result, these factors are core to the usage and maintenance of synaptic transmissions and neuroplasticity. Synaptic transmissions are signals that the brain sends to the body to perform daily activities in response to information sent from sensory neurons (sight and sound). Neuroplasticity is the adaptability of an organism to changes in its environment. These cognitive processes are known to degrade with age.1 However, with dancing, the continued stimulation of growth factors may allow better cognitive performance and functional freedom despite aging.1

Collectively, a wide array of studies has shown that dancing can improve mental health in multiple areas. However, while these studies imply a connection between dancing and mental health, they do have limitations. Some of these limitations include using small, specific groups of people and asking for subjective input from subjects to achieve results. The minute, specific groups of each study are not representative of an entire population of people, meaning that the results might not transcend to other groups. For example, the study on adolescent girls may not show the same results when conducted with elderly groups. Furthermore, subjective answers are not ideal for experimental purposes. These answers will vary depending on many factors, such as the individuals responding and their current mood. While these concerns are justified, the connections made in each study do indeed suggest dancing may be capable of positively influencing mental health. The studies collectively used differing age groups to prove the connection. They also implied dancing is highly effective at improving cognitive health by comparing its impact to the impact of other activities and by tracking its influence for several months or years.

These findings have important implications because they suggest that the human body can treat itself. If the studies are proven correct, people could use dancing, an affordable and accessible pastime, to maintain their health. Dancing transcends all socio-economic barriers because it is prevalent in any social and economic status. It is also highly inclusive because dancing encompasses a myriad of expressions, meaning that people with physical disabilities can find a form that works for them. Combined, these factors promote dancing as a widely available and possibly highly effective supplement to traditional medicine.



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