Anyone who has cut up the dance floor at a wedding knows that even just a few minutes of getting low to “Shout” can get feel-good endorphins flowing. But two new studies show that dancing has science-backed benefits that might give your brain a boost—and even reduce your risk of dementia.
In one eight-year study of 1,003 Japanese women, examined how different kinds of physical activity affected elderly women’s chances of becoming disabled, measured by their ability to carry out everyday tasks like dressing, walking, bathing and feeding themselves. Over the course of the study, published in Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 130 women were classified as disabled. Researchers found that physical activity was associated with lower rates of disability in general, but dancing stood out as the single most beneficial type of exercising in keeping independence.
In the study, women who danced frequently had a 73 percent lower chance of becoming disabled during the eight years they were studied.
Even once diagnosed, dementia patients report improvements in activities like being able to feed themselves if their daily accomplishments were emphasized.
What’s so different about dance compared to other physical activities? For starters, dance is a social activity. Maintaining social connections keeps your brain healthy, according to research. And the skills dance requires tap into a number of networks in the brain.
“Although it is unclear why dancing alone reduced the risk of activities of daily living disability, dancing requires not only balance, strength, and endurance ability, but also cognitive ability: adaptability and concentration to move according to the music and partner, artistry for graceful and fluid motion, and memory for choreography,” lead author Yosuke Osuka, of the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, said in a statement. “We think that these various elements may contribute to the superiority of dancing in maintaining higher activities of daily life capacity.”
Another study emphasized how activities like yoga, tai chi and dance could improve cognitive function in older adults. For that study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers analyzed 32 previous studies on dance on people between age 50 and 85. They found that people who did participate in physical activities that require mindfulness (think: counting to the beat, finding balance and remembering moves) had stronger cognitive function than those who didn’t participate in any. One to two hours of dance or tai chi per week improved the brains of those who were already having trouble with their memory, the researchers found.
The two studies were correlational, meaning that their findings do not prove a direct connection between dancing and improved brain health; they simply show that people who engage in more dancing also seem to experience better cognitive function. Another explanation could be that those with better brain functioning simply are better able or more likely to dance.
But it’s not the first time dance has been highlighted for more than just getting a good workout. A study in 2017 found that engaging in dance was associated with an increase in white matter density, a group of cells throughout the brain that pass messages along to neurons. As we age, white matter frays and its deterioration is thought to be related to cognitive decline. For this study, scientists divided older adults into groups and measured their brain’s matter at the beginning of the study. One group engaged in dance while the other two were given brisk walking and balance training regimens. Only the dance group, which participated in country-dance three times per week for an hour, showed an improvement in the size of their white matter.
The music participants dance to may also have influenced their better outcomes. Past research has shown that music immediately boosts mood in dementia patients along with cognitive function.