The Case for Dancing with Illnesses

Illustrated by Eugenia Yoh

When we think about the prehistoric ages, we imagine cavemen, igloos, and mediocre broken speech. However, scientists worldwide have voiced that there is reason to suggest dancing was in the mix. Professor Richard Ebstein of the psychology department at the Hebrew University‘s Scheinfeld Center for Genetic Studies believed that dancing is an activity humans were evolved to do. He noted that animals used dancing for mating purposes, and reasoned that human dancing was an evolved and sophisticated version of that. According to an ABC Science article, dance existed in early communities such as those of Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, Africans, and Eurasians, which is fascinating since they were separated geographically as well.9  Reasons for its sustained presence throughout the ages include its importance in mating, as Ebstein mentioned, communication between organisms 6, 10, and social/emotional connection. At its core, dance is a form of fitness and an open ground for self-expression.

The evolutionary basis of dance in humans suggests its importance and healing potential. Although the field of neuroscience and dance is relatively new, numerous studies have already investigated the effects of dance on the brain as well as it’s possible role in therapy for those with Alzheimer’s disease and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia that affects memory and cognitive function. It worsens with time and has no cure to date. Physiologically, the memory loss is due to the destruction of neurons in the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus, regions of the brain involved with memory retention and formation. Two other characteristics of Alzheimer’s include the buildup of beta-amyloid protein plaques between neurons and the abnormal accumulation of tau proteins in neurons.

Past studies have shown that increased physical activity led to improved cognitive performance1, better memory performance,3 and decreased risk for dementia2. Studies carried out in Health Sciences Facility at the University of Almería showed that dance could “improve or slow the worsening in the quality of life of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers.”11

Illustrated by Eugenia Yoh

In general, for geriatric patients, studies found that physical activity led to tangible differences in brain volume and structure. According to a study carried out at Jacobs University Bremen, Germany, “After the 12-month intervention period [in older adults], both cardiovascular and coordination training led to increases in hippocampal volume”4.  

A study carried out by the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases also found that dancing provided unique cognitive benefits when compared to other conventional forms of fitness activity11. Researchers there found that elderly patients who danced had larger brain volume increases in the cingulate cortex and sensorimotor cortex when compared to those who just carried out repetitive physical exercise. These results align with our expectations since dancing requires high levels of motor coordination and memory retention as a result of creative choreography. Furthermore, because dance is widely considered a leisurely activity, there has been significant success with using dancing as a sustainable means towards healthier living.

Autism is broadly defined as a developmental disorder that negatively can impact behavior and communication. It is a spectrum disorder, meaning that there are varying degrees of severity. Symptoms include minimal eye contact, difficulty with coordination, and an inability to comprehend others’ actions or emotions well. Most symptoms present between the first two years of a patient’s life but can persist through adulthood.

Illustrated by Eugenia Yoh

Researcher Pat Amos published a thorough review of the effect of dancing on ASD patients in the peer-reviewed journal “Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience”. Amos reported the effects of ASD on circadian rhythms, brain waves/seizures, mood regulation, developmental regulation and periods.7 Amos found that at the biological level, patients with autism were found to have difficulty with their coordination because “time perception is associated with a highly distributed brain system including the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and basal ganglia—areas of the brain generally associated with autism.”7 However, with dance, autistic kids are put in an environment where they can associate specific beats with different forms of movement, and thus, they can practice their rhythmic coordination.         Although the scope of this article focuses only on the benefits of dancing for those with ASD and Alzheimer’s disease, multiple studies have also found the positive effects of dance in patients with Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and depression. The hope from here is that we can take steps towards not just changing drug treatment plans for patients, but also making active choices towards changing lifestyles. 

Edited by: Anhthi Luong
Illustrated by: Eugenia Yoh

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