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  • John Lowry

Dance Your Way to a Long Happy Life.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently released a report studying modifiable risk factors for dementia and cognitive decline in adults. Dementia is a major cause of disability and dependency among older people worldwide that affects activities of daily living and social functioning, with a significant impact not only on individuals but also on carers, families, communities and societies. It poses one of the greatest global challenges for health and social care in the 21st century, currently affecting 5% of people over 60, and growing.

Several recent studies have shown a relationship between the development of cognitive impairment and dementia with lifestyle-related risk factors, including:

  • physical inactivity,

  • tobacco use,

  • unhealthy diet

  • harmful use of alcohol.

  • isolation, and

  • cognitive inactivity.

Certain medical conditions are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia, including hypertension, diabetes, obesity and depression.

Recommended lifestyle interventions include:

Group 1

  • Physical activity;

  • Cognitive interventions;

  • Social Activity;

  • Managing depression;

Group 2

  • Reductions in smoking and alcohol abuse;

  • Healthy, Mediterranean diet;

  • Managing weight;

  • Managing hypertension & diabetes.

The above recommendations tend to work together, both within and across the two groups. In Group 2 eating better and reducing alcohol intake tend lead to weight loss that in turn helps hypertension management and type 2 diabetes. It is common knowledge that regular dancers do not drink to excess and smoke less. it is a good part of the reason that dance nights do not survive in venues that rely on sales of alcohol for revenue.

Group 1 is where dancing really ramps up the advantage of social dancing

As neurosciences become more sophisticated there is a build-up of evidence that indicates dance is a very powerful force for physical and mental health. It is known to improve learning outcomes and social ability in children. There are many and complex reasons for these findings.

Physical activity can be everything from gentle to energetic in a night. Even better, it is generally sustained for several hours. Would the average person walk for four hours, once or more per week? Probably not. But regular dancers happily undertake this regular exercise and eagerly look forward to the next session. This pleasurable habit can be maintained well into old age. Carmencita Calderon continued to dance Tango past her 100th year. Balance is also important indicator of life expectancy. People who begin to lose balance tend to sit for longer periods and rely on those around them for simple activities, such as making a coffee. It is a fast downward spiral as they quickly lose muscle tone and fall risk escalates sharply. Regular dancers work to maintain good balance without even trying. (Test - How long can you stand on one leg with your eyes closed?). Dance as a form of therapy - specifically Argentine Tango -- has the potential to significantly improve balance and reduce fall risk among cancer patients experiencing peripheral neuropathy, according to new research conducted by a multidisciplinary research team at The Ohio State University.

A study of 48 thousand healthy people indicated a 46% lower risk of cardiovascular death in dancers over a decade compared with infrequent or non-dancers.

Cognitive interventions - In a 21 year long study it was found the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia is frequent dancing. Dance has a much greater effect on warding off dementia than any cognitive activity.

The risk reduction was found to be Reading - 35%, Crosswords - 47%, Regular dancing - 76%.

Stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia - In an Australian study comparing Tango dancing and meditation, Tango dance was shown to produce a broader range of clinically significant improvements in psychological function and sleep disturbance than meditation or exercise. Specifically, tango induced clinically relevant decreases in stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia, and increases in mindfulness, which were maintained over time. In a German study, it was found that Tango not only raises mood, but also has a demonstrable impact on the distribution of stress and sex hormones. The stress hormone cortisol decreases while dancing, whilst both partners experience elevated levels testosterone and dopamine.

Education & social cohesion - More than 400 studies related to interdisciplinary neuroscience reveal the hidden value of dance. For instance, we acquire knowledge and develop cognitively because dance bulks up the brain. Consequently, the brain that “dances” is changed by it. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio points out, “Learning and creating memory are simply the process of chiseling, modelling, shaping, doing, and redoing our individual brain wiring diagrams.”

Dance is a language of physical exercise that sparks new brain cells (neurogenesis) and their connections. These connections are responsible for acquiring knowledge and thinking. Dancing stimulates the release of the brain-derived protein neurotropic factor that promotes the growth, maintenance, and plasticity of neurons necessary for learning and memory. Plus, dancing makes some neurons nimble so that they readily wire into the neural network. Neural plasticity is the brain’s remarkable ability to change through out life. (Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD, is author of Dancing to Learn: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement).

Pierre Dulaine, through the US program “Dancing Classrooms” has demonstrated improvements in student behaviour and academic performance in schools that have adopted his programs. This program was extended to a successful social experiment with Arab and Jewish children in Israel, reported in the documentary, “Dancing in Jaffa”.

It is well accepted that the southern European family structure is beneficial for children. Engaging children in adult social activity helps children develop mature social behaviours as they move into adulthood. Dance is a particularly effective way to integrate generations in mutually enjoyable social activity. We believe that dance could have a long-term beneficial effect on high-risk social behaviours in adolescents.

Social contact and human touch - “Touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. It is our primary language of compassion, and a primary means for spreading compassion”. Dacher Keltner PhD UC, Berkley.

Connection with other people, both physical and social is beneficial for physical, emotional and mental health. Tango offers very close non-threatening physical connection during the dance. Tango dancers quickly adopt the Argentine (and Latin) habit of embracing when they meet. Tango also provides a safe, healthy, non threatening social atmosphere for people to gather and socialise in a non-work, low-stress environment. The embrace is central to the dance of Tango. “We embrace, connecting our bodies, closing our eyes, mixing our breath, walking every musical note”. “Tango is a 3 minute romance”. The tango embrace will emphasise the felt sensations of the embrace, rather than what it looks like for a detached observer, thus emphasising the importance of experiencing the dance to fully comprehend it.

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