Dancing Makes You Smarter

Physical activity

For centuries, dance manuals and other writings have lauded the health benefits of dancing, usually as physical exercise. More recently we’ve seen research on further health benefits of dancing, such as stress reduction and increased serotonin level, with its sense of well-being. Most recently we’ve heard of another benefit: Frequent dancing apparently makes us smarter. A major study added to the growing evidence that stimulating one’s mind by dancing can ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia, much as physical exercise can keep the body fit. Dancing also increases cognitive acuity at all ages. The 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity in aging was to monitor rates of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The study wanted to see if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity. They discovered that some activities had a significant beneficial effect. Other activities had none. They studied cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. And they studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework. One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia. There can be cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of this study was the mind. There was one important exception: the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing.

  • Reading – 35% reduced risk of dementia
  • Bicycling and swimming – 0%
  • Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week – 47%
  • Playing golf – 0%
  • Dancing frequently – 76%. That was the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.

Why dancing?

The best advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style. One way to do that is to learn something new. Not just dancing, but anything new. Don’t worry about the probability that you’ll never use it in the future. Take a class to challenge your mind. It will stimulate the connectivity of your brain by generating the need for new pathways. Difficult classes are better for you, as they will create a greater need for new neural pathways. Then take a dance class, which can be even more effective. Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity.

What kind of dancing?

Do all kinds of dancing lead to increased mental acuity? No, not all forms of dancing will produce the same benefit, especially if they only work on style, or merely retrace the same memorized paths. Making as many split-second decisions as possible is the key to maintaining our cognitive abilities. Remember: intelligence is what we use when we don’t already know what to do. We wish that 25 years ago the Albert Einstein College of Medicine thought of doing side-by-side comparisons of different kinds of dancing, to find out which was better. But we can figure it out by looking at who they studied: senior citizens 75 and older, beginning in 1980. Those who danced in that particular population were former Roaring Twenties dancers (back in 1980) and then former Swing Era dancers (today), so the kind of dancing most of them continued to do in retirement was what they began when they were young: freestyle social dancing — basic foxtrot, swing, waltz and maybe some Latin.

Dance often

The study made another important suggestion: do it often. Seniors who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a measurably lower risk of dementia than those who did the puzzles once a week. If you can’t take classes or go out dancing four times a week, then dance as much as you can. More is better. And do it now, the sooner the better. It’s essential to start building your cognitive reserve now. Some day you’ll need as many of those stepping stones across the creek as possible. Don’t wait — start building them now.