For most of us, dancing is a fun way to unwind, or something we do after a few too many drinks on a Saturday night.
But what if dancing could actually help slow – or even reverse – in some cases – the aging process? The ABC’s Catalyst He wanted to find out.
In his youth, Roderick spent his weekends dancing the night away at rave parties.
“I thought I was a good dancer,” says the 67-year-old.
But Rodrik’s life changed four decades ago when he was diagnosed with HIV.
Since taking antiretroviral medication for his illness, he has developed peripheral neuropathy – a condition that causes numbness, weakness, and pain in the hands and feet.
The drug that saved Roderick’s life left him without any feeling in his legs, making it difficult for him to balance – let alone dance.
“It was like walking on rubber,” he says.
Recently, Rodrik joined eight other participants in a Catalyst experiment that explored how dance can help older adults improve their physical and mental health.
Over the course of 12 weeks, participants spent four hours each week learning a routine that combined dance and sign language.
Led by Australian choreographer Kelly Abe, the program culminated in a live performance at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney.
Participants also participated in seven health assessments that measured their physical and cognitive abilities before and after the program.
But after only three rehearsals, Rodrik has already made significant progress.
After 10 years of living without any feeling in his legs, he said he started feeling a twinge of pain in his calf muscle while doing some stretching.
“It’s a pain, but it’s a good bloody pain.”
And there was more good news to come.
Love it or hate it, we are all getting older. When we look in the mirror, we may notice some wrinkles or strands of silver hair, but there are also a lot of changes going on inside.
First, we slowly begin to lose muscle mass around age 35, a process that accelerates after turning 60. This can make us weaker and more susceptible to fatigue, making it more difficult to move our bodies.
The way we walk is also changing. While we may be able to zip across the street in our youth, we tend to take shorter, slower steps as we get older, which results in unsteadiness on our feet.
Therefore, it is not surprising that falls are the most common cause of injury-related deaths in people over the age of 75, according to data from NHS Digital in the UK.
“This can be one of the most problematic physical aspects of aging,” says Rachel Ward, a biomechanical scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
“The fall is a heavy burden on the public health system.”
Dealing with these physical challenges and the risks that come with them can affect daily life.
Over time, it can become more tempting to go easy and skip exercises altogether.
Moreover, our cognitive abilities—such as the ability to instantly remember names and numbers and perform mental calculations—can be affected.
Staying fit and mentally intelligent go hand in hand — for better or worse, says Emily Cross, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Marks Institute for Brain, Behavior and Development at Western Sydney University.
If you’re not moving as much, you’re also not giving your brain enough exercise.
“We hear it over and over – use it or lose it,” says Professor Cross.
“This is particularly the case for physical activity and the maintenance of physical circuits in the brain.”
Get your groove
But it’s not all gloomy and gloomy. While any form of exercise is good for the mind and body, dancing ticks every square at once.
As opposed to performing squats or lifting weights, dancing is like multitasking on steroids.
You move your body through space, remember the sequence of steps, and coordinate with other dancers around you – all while moving in time with the music (or trying it!).
This gives your body a 360-degree workout, says Dr. Ward.
“The unique thing about dancing is that you don’t do the same movement over and over… you learn a lot at the same time,” she says.
“It all provides an ongoing musculoskeletal and neurological challenge.”
Dancing is especially good for your heart. One 2016 study of more than 48,000 participants Over the age of 40 it found that those who danced had a 46 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease than non-dancers.
Several studies have linked dancing to improved balance, flexibility, muscle strength, and coordination.
By the end of the Catalyst trial, all participants noted an improvement in their fitness, balance, and agility.
In the four-square step test — which measures how quickly participants move between four squares — Rodrik improved his time by more than 30 percent.
As he struggled to balance on one leg at the start of the program, he was able to stand on his right leg for 30 seconds after 12 weeks of dancing.
Dancing can also help people with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease – which affects 1 in 100 people over the age of 65.
People with Parkinson’s disease often find it difficult to control their movements.
Dancing to music can help them tap into parts of their brain that are not affected by the disease, helping them find more flow in their movements, says Natalie Allen, a neurophysiotherapist who specializes in Parkinson’s disease at the University of Sydney. .
“The rhythm of music helps people with Parkinson’s disease move more freely and easily,” Dr. Allen told Catalyst.
72-year-old Annie was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease this year after noticing tremors in her hands. She was also unsteady on her feet.
But after participating in the Catalyst Dance Experience, Annie lowered her shaking in its position by two-thirds.
Disco for your brain
Whether you’re trying to master ballroom dancing or a perfect spin, dancing makes your mind light up.
All this learning can also reshape and shape new pathways in your brain.
A 2021 study of people ages 60 to 79 found that doing a combination of brisk walking and social dancing increases the amount of white matter — the nerve tissue that enables brain cells to quickly send and receive messages.
“With dance, we have a whole range of cognitive and social tasks going on,” Professor Cross told Catalyst.
“If you want to stave off nervous decline in general, dancing is a great way to exercise your brain across multiple domains.”
It’s hard to study what happens in people’s brains as they spin and swing in a training room.
But Professor Cross did the next best thing: peek into what’s going on in people’s brains as they watch a video of their teacher performing a dance routine they’re learning.
“If you are going to learn to dance, you will learn by watching someone else do it,” she says.
“You have to translate what you see in other people’s bodies into your own.”
Our brains contain special cells called mirror neurons, which allow us to learn by watching another person.
These cells are located in areas of the brain involved in controlling body movements, awareness, and spatial attention.
Professor Cross and her team found that this network of mirror neurons works while people are watching and learning — even if they’re just watching a video of someone else performing the routine they’ve learned.
“These areas sharpen their responses and are really kind of online in a way that helps you bridge the gap between what you see someone else doing with their body, and what you’re doing with your body,” says Professor Cross.
The good news is that these same areas function in people of all ages, indicating that the brain never loses its ability to learn new things.
“It’s really exciting that learning is kind of forming these brain circuits,” says Professor Cross.
“This means that you can teach an old dog new tricks.”
This cognitive enhancement has also been seen in Catalyst dancers.
Shirley, who was diagnosed five years ago with Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia – had the largest improvement among all participants.
At first, Shirley performed significantly poorer on cognitive tests than the rest of the group.
But after three months of dancing, her test results were closer to those of the rest of the participants.
“It’s amazing, I can’t believe it,” the 75-year-old told Catalyst.
And while Shirley may not be able to get rid of her condition completely, her findings show that the physical, creative and social aspects of dance can be beneficial.
“All of these aspects of dancing can help slow the progression of dementia,” says Professor Cross.
The ultimate mood booster
One in eight Australians over the age of 65 experience social isolation or experience loneliness, which can lead to low mood and poor mental health.
Professor Cross says that while walking with friends is one way to stay connected, dancing gets you out of your comfort zone in ways that other types of exercise don’t.
“If you are learning new things, making mistakes, and laughing at yourself and each other, there is potential for building social bonds that you might not get if you were only in a walking group,” she says.
“There is an expression of yourself through your bodily movements, and none of the other physical activities would have that.”
Several studies have shown that dancing for at least 150 minutes a week can reduce depression in older adults, while others have found that it can help relieve anxiety and social isolation.
It’s also a huge confidence boost, which Shirley experienced herself in the Catalyst trial as she started getting used to the dance routine after a few weeks of rehearsals.
“The fact that I can do this and I understand everything…I really appreciate it,” she says.
“I feel that I belong and I am not a burden to others.”
With so many different dance styles, it can be hard to know how to choose just one. But you really can’t go wrong, says Dr. Ward.
“I believe any form of dance will provide a physical, mental and cognitive challenge.”
A good way to narrow down your options, says Dr. Ward, is to think about the type of music you’ve always enjoyed and how much you want to pass on.
But in the end, the most beneficial form of dance is the one you enjoy the most.
“When we’re talking about the best intervention, it’s the one that people want to stick with,” Professor Cross says.
For Rodrik, the benefits are “life-changing”. By the end of the program, he felt full sensation in his legs after 10 years of numbness.
“The joy of feeling the sheets on your legs…I can actually tell the difference between hot and cold now,” he says.
“I’ll keep dancing, that’s for sure.”
Watch Catalyst’s Keep On Dancing series on ABC iview.