Whether you do the robot, shake your tail feather or go full ballroom, dancing has benefits that go way beyond having a good time
18 December 2018
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NOT all of us have what it takes to be a dancing queen. But whether you are a politician with two left feet or a Strictly Come Dancing wannabe, if you like to dance you are in luck. Ballet, ballroom or breakdancing, it doesn’t matter: getting into the groove does wonders for you. And it’s not just the joy of moving to music. Dancing is good for the brain too. It can change the way you think and even keep your mind sharp as you age.
“People are born to move. They are born to move rhythmically,” says dance psychologist Peter Lovatt at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. Admittedly, we are not all blessed with the same degree of talent for it, but dancing is ingrained in human nature. People across almost all cultures have done it for as long as we know. Indeed, a sense of rhythm seems to be innate. Telltale brain activity in newborn babies reveals that even they can spot when a drummer skips a beat.
Humans are not the only species with rhythm. The list is not long, but other groovers include elephants, sea lions and bonobos. One thing most of them have in common is a complex social life, leading to the idea that a sense of rhythm might have evolved as part of a group’s need to coordinate its actions. Indeed, studies reveal that when people move in synchrony they experience a stronger sense of community and are more altruistic towards one another. Likewise, children who dance together turn out to be more cooperative in subsequent games. What’s more, when professional dancers watch clips of dancing their brainwaves begin to synchronise. “Moving together in rhythm supports social bonding,” says Lovatt. “It increases prosocial behaviour.”
What is now emerging is that dancing also has remarkable benefits for individuals. For a start, it can improve thinking skills. In one study, college students either danced, cycled, listened quietly to music or sat still, and did tests of mood and creativity before and after. Those who got up and danced showed increases in creative thinking after just 5 minutes of moving to music, and their mood improved too.
The two things are probably connected. Dancing releases feel-good neurochemicals into the bloodstream called endorphins, which relieve anxiety and depression. “You get an increase in mood when you dance and you also get an increase in creative problem-solving,” says Lovatt.
“Mood has an important role in cognition,” agrees Joe Verghese at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. But there’s far more to dancing than that. The reason it has an edge over other types of exercise may stem from it encompassing so many elements: emotional, cognitive, physical and social. “Dance is a complex activity,” says Verghese.
Less surprisingly, it can also boost coordination, spatial navigation and memory – particularly if you are trying to master a new step or routine. “There are multiple effects on the brain,” says Verghese. Among other things, dancing engages cognitive and sensorimotor regions involved in planning and performing movement. It literally alters the connections between neurons and how they communicate.
“Dance affects some parts of the brain more than others,” says Verghese. One key region is the hippocampus, a pair of structures deep inside that are involved in learning, spatial awareness and long-term memory. As we age, the hippocampus normally loses about 2 or 3 per cent of its volume every decade. After age 70, that increases to as much as 1 per cent each year. And the loss is particularly rapid in people who have dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease. Intriguingly, however, the hippocampus can grow in response to various mental and physical challenges, including dancing.
“Your mood improves when you dance – and so does your problem solving”
A study published last year compared healthy adults aged 63 and older who either danced or took part in aerobics classes twice a week for six months and then weekly for a year. MRI scans showed an increase in the volume of the hippocampus in both groups. In the dancers, this appeared to be linked with improved balance. Another recent study found that dancing can reduce the loss of white matter in the brain, which also tends to accelerate with age. White matter tracts are like highways between brain areas and are involved in emotional processing, focus and problem-solving. When the researchers compared people who either walked, stretched or danced three days a week for six months, they found that only the dancers showed a slowdown in white matter loss.
These findings fit with research by Verghese into which leisure activities might reduce dementia risk. His team followed 469 people older than 75 for an average of five years and found that those who enjoyed cerebral hobbies such as reading and doing crossword puzzles were less likely to develop dementia. Dancing was the only physical activity with a similar effect – in fact, people who danced had the smallest cognitive decline of all.
Verghese hopes that more research will help quantify the effectiveness of dance and identify how it can best be used to improve brain health. He is now conducting a pilot study with 32 adults aged 65 and older, who for six months will participate in either social dancing (for example, foxtrot, waltz and Latin) or treadmill-walking. At the end, brain scans will reveal where any changes have occurred.
All this is very good news. If you have ever wanted to learn to tango or were simply too embarrassed to share your dad-dancing moves, here is your excuse to get on the dance floor and strut your stuff. It doesn’t matter when in life you take it up, any time is the right time to dance.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Boogie on!”
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