Dancing has long been associated in films and novels with what the “bad” kids do to defy adults (cue Dirty Dancing, Footloose). But what if dancing was actually a road to higher levels of intelligence—so much so that the person waltzing away was simultaneously warding off deterioration of their brain and maybe even building new pathways?

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According to the Bronx Aging Study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, dancing is the best activity for combating dementia and one of the most effective methods of stimulating multiple parts of the brain and encouraging healthy brain function. Conducted by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City from 1980 to 2002, the Bronx Aging Study found that dancing has the highest outcome in combating dementia and keeping the brain agile. The study examined a group of 469 men and women age 75 and older with no initial signs of dementia and followed their leisure activities. What they found was the following:

ACTIVITY

REDUCED RISK OF DEMENTIA

Bicycling, swimming, golf

0%

Reading

35%

Crossword puzzles (minimum four days per week)

47%

Playing a musical instrument

69%

Dancing

76%

The study concluded that leisure activities—especially dancing—encourage plasticity of the brain, which increases your ability to learn and grow. In other words, the brain becomes active and ever-changing, as opposed to atrophying and dying. Albert Einstein College of Medicine neurology professor Joe Verghese, MD, reported to WebMD that ballroom dancing was the study participants’ most popular activity. Unlike swimming or golf, which rely on muscle memory, dancing combines physical exercise (which increases blood flow to the brain) with socializing (which helps stave off depression). Interaction goes a long way toward keeping the brain active. Last but not least, the mental workout that occurs when the brain has to memorize steps—while simultaneously keeping up with a partner—makes for a lot of neurons firing and a very active mind.

Further studies by Howard Gardner, PhD, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, have shown that you don’t have to be in your golden years to get in the groove and put your mind to work. Dancing helps no matter how old you are, as dementia is only one cognitive issue that it improves. Dancing falls under what Gardner calls bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, meaning that when a person is using their whole body to solve problems, the mental work is directly related to the physical activity. In contrast, reading or crosswords only utilize the brain, not the body, while straight sports, like football or basketball, are done by rote as opposed to creativity. Dancing requires the brain to integrate patterns while at the same time creating new movements with the physical body to produce an outcome.

Gardner equates dancers with surgeons: The more you exercise the mind and body simultaneously, the more you up the ante on your instantaneous problem-solving ability. People who possess these skills are able to control fine and gross motor skills, meaning they simultaneously excel at both small muscle movements (like using a scalpel) and big muscle movements (like hitting a home run). Dancers are in control of both sets of muscle groups while their brain constantly creates something new.

In 2010, Stanford University released a paper derived from the Bronx dementia research. The Stanford researchers wanted to see if the same reasoning could be applied to all ages and therefore enhance brain activity for anyone. Their conclusion affirmed that the benefits of dancing are twofold: instantaneous decision-making while being physically challenged. Just challenging your mind with memory games, for example, doesn’t activate all the pathways to brainpower, which would in turn increase new growth and promote and maintain healthy brain function. The Stanford study also reported that dancing integrates many different brain functions at the same time: kinesthetic (as found in Professor Gardner’s research), rational, musical and emotional. Having all of these brain activities working concurrently raises the levels of neural connectivity, leading to faster thinking, moving and response times.

So dance as much as you can! The Bronx Aging Study found that the more times a week you dance, the better your chances of dodging dementia. You can read, you can solve puzzles, you can muscle your way through memorizing, but if your body isn’t moving, you’re only exercising a limited portion of your brain.

Take Josephine Caprio of New Jersey, for example. Starting as a young girl, Caprio danced right through her 96 years of life without a hitch, keeping her body agile and her brain sharp until her passing. Caprio recommended ballroom dancing to everyone she met, but her 80-year-old daughter, Grace Rotondo, wasn’t able to keep up with her mother’s track record. “Dancing kept my mother fit, kept her sharp as a tack and kept her out of everyone’s way,” says Rotondo, who has had some short-term memory-loss issues and is the first to admit, “Maybe if I’d danced more, I’d remember the movie I saw last week.”

Sources:

  1. Bronx Aging Study
  2. Stanford University paper
  3. Howard Gardner, PhD
  4. Factual Health