Socrates, the master of dialectics, used to dance alone and encouraged everyone to follow his example. “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul; (…) and also because he who has received this education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature”, he wrote.
Today science confirms that dancing is not only an excellent physical exercise but is also beneficial for psychological balance. We know that dancing stimulates the production of serotonin, which helps us to reduce stress and causes a pleasant sensation of well-being and relaxation. Therefore, there is no doubt that dancing makes us happier. However, what we did not know was that dance acts as a protective network for our brain helping us to preserve cognitive functions.
Dancing protects our brain more than doing crosswords or reading
A very interesting study carried out at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine proved for the first time the enormous impact that dancing has on the health of our brain. The researchers analyzed 469 older adults over a period of 5 years to discover how their physical or recreational activities influenced their mental acuity.
They analyzed cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and musical instruments. They also analyzed the impact of physical activities such as playing tennis or golf, swimming, cycling, dancing, walking and taking care of domestic chores.
They discovered that some activities did not make any difference, but others seemed to protect from cognitive decline. Reading decreased the risk of suffering dementia by 35% and doing crossword puzzles at least 4 days a week reduced that risk by 47%.
However, physical activities did not provide any special protection, except for one: dancing. Elderly people who danced frequently were 76% less likely to suffer from dementia and preserved better their cognitive functions.
Another study, more recent, carried out at the University of Magdeburg, delved into the effects of dancing at the brain level. On this occasion the neuroscientists worked with 52 older adults, half of them were assigned to a dance group and the other half did physical exercise.
After 1 year and a half, in the people who danced, was appreciated a greater increase in the volume of the hippocampus, the region of the brain related to learning and memory. However, the most surprising thing was that there had also been important changes in the subiculum, an improvement that was not appreciated in those who limited themselves to physical exercise.
The subiculum is an area of the hippocampus related to the operative memory, which is one of those that is first damaged in the dementias, from where projections depart towards the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, so it is vital to control our emotions and make decisions rationally.
Dancing stimulates neurogenesis and brain plasticity
Why is dancing so beneficial to our brain?
First we must understand how cognitive decline occurs. Basically, when the neurons die and the synapses weaken, we lose the access to the information or skills that were “stored” in that area.
Unfortunately, we cannot stop the process of neuronal death, but we can create parallel processes to bypass brain aging. How? Cultivating from an early age a synaptic complexity that provides the basis for our brain to constantly restructure itself.
In other words: for how many more bridges we build in our youth to cross to the other side of the river, easier will be to cross when we reach the old age because our brain will be used to restructuring and look for new neuronal highways.
Dancing contributes to this cerebral plasticity because it integrates different brain functions at the same time, improving neuronal connectivity. In addition, dancing also stimulates the neurotrophic factor derived from the brain, a protein that intervenes in the birth of new nerve cells. Therefore, it not only potentiates the growth of new neurons, but also helps to consolidate new neuronal highways that will feed our cognitive reserves.
Rehfeld, K. et. Al. (2017) Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors.Frontiers in Human Neuroscience; 11:305.
Verghese, J. et. Al. (2003) Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly. N Engl J Med; 348(25): 2508-2516.