See? We should all dance!

This study is pretty well-known, but I only just read about it this last week-end. In 2003 the New England Journal of Medicine featured a study on leisure activities and Alzheimer’s. The study tried to determine which activities reduced the risk of dementia (not just Alzheimer’s.)

And which activity reduced dementia risk the most? Dancing! Well, specifically free-style ballroom dancing, since that was the type of dancing the study’s participants engaged in. Also, dancing was the activity that reduced risk the most, although playing a musical instrument and playing board games came a very close second and third.

Now in any study you don’t want to get too hung up on the exact percentages, because with any single study the range of results within a 95% confidence interval is often quite large. But dancing, playing an instrument and board games appeared to reduce dementia risk by about 70%. That is a heavy reduction.

Two other activities were also clearly successful at reducing dementia risk: reading and doing crossword puzzles. They appeared to reduce risk by 30-40%.

Which activities had no effect? Writing, participating in group discussions, climbing stairs, bicycling, playing team sports and group exercise. Some other activities, like babysitting and housework, had unclear results.

Speculating about the results of any one study can be dangerous. However, this study has been cited by over seven-hundred other studies since it’s publication, and every study I read offered support for at least the limited finding that dance and music significantly improve mental functions and subjective well being for elders who face dementia risk. And a massive study in 2018 of 15,582 elderly Chinese in Hong Kong confirmed the risk-reducing properties of reading and board games. That study even confirmed a similar reduction in risk–about 30%. So I am going to go ahead and speculate.

Ballroom dancing, like the street dancing I participate in, requires constant split second decisions and improvisation. And it requires you to both listen and act simultaneously. Playing musical instruments with others requires this same improvisational ability, and to some extent board games also require you to at least think on the fly.

Having to make split second decisions may be the key to creating new neural pathways in the brain.

I often talk about the mental illnesses that I suffer from, and also about being autistic. When I was in my twenties I started playing the drums. But I didn’t just want to play the drums. I wanted to be able to play different rhythms simultaneously. I wanted to achieve independence of limb between my right and left hands, and between my hands and my feet. I wanted to be able to play rhythms with my left hand that directly contrasted with the rhythms played by my right hand to build up tension in the music. And I wanted to be able to layer rhythms with my hands over the rhythms played by my feet, as if percussionists were improvising over a basic drum machine rhythm.

Needless to say this required a lot of practice.

Now I can’t prove any of this, but I know that learning independence of limb between my right and left hands dramatically changed my brain chemistry. I think it may have been the single most important thing I ever did in terms of dealing with my autism, and might be in second or third place in terms of dealing with my mental illnesses.

Later on, learning how to dance opened up connections between parts of my body that I had never felt before. It’s not just that I learned some new skills. The way my brain interacts with my body is different now. I feel things differently.

So I was not surprised at all to find out that the two activities most strongly associated with reduced dementia risk were playing an instrument and dancing.

Board games and crossword puzzles also require making improvisational decisions, and thinking about old problems in new ways. So it’s not surprising that those activities are reduced dementia risk.

I have to say, as someone who loves to write, that I am not surprised that writing did not reduce risk. But reading did! Honestly, I don’t usually feel that I am learning much when I write. I tend to go down familiar mental paths. Reading, on the other hand, sometimes really does change my mind, which means it is probably changing my brain.

I was saddened to see that conversation doesn’t seem to affect dementia risk, but that is not so surprising either. Most of us are not great listeners, and when we talk, we tend to say the things that make us feel good. And that means we tend to say what we are used to saying.

Since I am a dancer and a musician myself, of course there may be some confirmation bias here. Well, there is certainly at least some confirmation bias. But I hope to encourage many of you who do not dance, who do not sing, and who do not play music to consider trying it. I especially encourage you to consider learning if you are “too old” or “don’t have any talent.”

One of the things I found most interesting in some of the follow-up studies was that, consistently, they found that the improvements from learning dance and music were biggest among the elders who were in the worst shape at the beginning of the study! I was born with no talent as a dancer or musician. When I was in middle school I couldn’t even stand up on a balance beam, could not tell whether an instrument was in tune or not, and had no sense of rhythm. Those of us who have to work the hardest to improve are the ones whose lives improve the most from learning.