Dancing and Dance Therapy on Older Adults: Facts, Benefits, Precautions

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

Dance TherapyAs the saying goes, “Just because it is popular, doesn’t mean it is good for you.” I always thought that statement wasn’t so simple. For instance, dancing is as popular as it gets. The nostalgia, sexiness, flow, smoothness, hypnotism, and downright beauty that is dance has put many in a trance while watching movies like Footloose (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987), Save the Last Dance (2001), Step Up (2006), and the list goes on.

Reality dance competitions continuously rank among the top shows for TV networks, with So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars being the most popular. World of Dance is a new one this year hosted by Step Up actress, Jenna Dewan Tatum, and produced by Jennifer Lopez. Although Lopez is a popular singer and actress, she also is considered one of dance’s “greatest success stories.”

Despite all this popularity, dancing and dance therapy at any age is healthy for you, including those in their 60s, 70s, and beyond. As humans, we are designed to move, and we are not meant to sit for long periods of time. And yet, most of the population spends a lot of time sitting either at a desk while working, in a vehicle while commuting, and then on a couch while watching TV (ironically, quite possibly watching TV series or movies about getting up and dancing).

Unfortunately, it isn’t that easy to stop sitting or move more throughout the day, without a drastic career change (i.e. becoming a dancer or athletic instructor of some sort). That doesn’t mean that you can’t reap some of the health benefits of dancing in your spare time.

This article will look at why dancing and dance therapy can be extremely beneficial for your health. I will also delve into the research, which shows that dancing and dance therapy can help prevent and benefit older adults with dementia, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, arthritis, and more.

What Is Dancing and Dance Therapy?

Dancing is simply the performance art of persistently and purposefully using specific movement sequences. In other words, you are having fun while moving to musical rhythm. There are different types of dancing, from ballet to contemporary, to tap dance, salsa, the rumba, and even the cha cha. Zumba is even a popular exercise form of dance that is offered in many exercise clubs and studios.

On the other hand, dance/movement therapy (DMT) is considered the psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote social, cognitive, emotional, and physical functions of the body. DMT is also called movement therapy, and therapeutic dance programs range from traditional ballroom dances to other forms of movement like stretching and yoga that help calm the body.

How does DMT differ from regular dancing? Basically, the movement in dance therapy is more than just exercise. The fluidity, actions, and movement are more like a language that helps a person communicate unconscious and conscious feelings through dance. The DMT therapist will then respond to body language, movement, emotional expressions, and nonverbal behavior to develop specific movements that address the needs of the client.

There is also a traditional Chinese medicine form of dance therapy called wu tao, which is like a dancing form of qigong or tai chi. It combines the healing of movement, meditation, and music to help tone the body, improve flexibility, release stress, and nurture the spirit.

Health Benefits of Dancing and Dance Therapy

The truth is, regular dancing, DMT, and also TCM dance therapy are all beneficial for your health. People of all ages, sizes, and shapes use dance for a wide range of mental, emotional, and physical benefits.

One study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in 2016 examined the effects of dancing on older adults with an average age of around 70 years old. For the study, the participants were randomly assigned to various groups—stretching and balancing training, brisk walking, and country dancing with advanced choreography.

The groups met three times weekly for an hour. After six months, the researchers found that the oldest participants that were sedentary before the study saw a decline in brain’s white matter. Furthermore, the participants that learned how to country dance also saw an improvement in white matter compared to just six months earlier. White matter is considered cell connectors that transmit messages neurons between different parts of the brain. When we age, the speed that white matter communicates starts to slow down.

Overall, the study discovered that dancing might be able to change the biochemistry of the brain. Adapting to different partners’ dance styles, learning and remembering new steps, and socializing with others are all possible reasons dancing had such a positive effect on the brain.

There are so many good reasons why dancing benefits older adults, and there is plenty of research to support that statement. The following are scientific studies that show that dancing and dance therapy is beneficial, especially for problems common with the elderly.

1. Improves physical health

Regular dancing can improve overall physical activity. A study published in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics in 2009 found that Turkish folklore dance improves physical performance, balance, and quality of life in women over the age of 65 years old.

Other studies have found adding dancing to the routine of adults aged 65 to 74 increased their physical activity from 10.8 hours per week to 13.6 hours.

2. Improves balance

Dancing is also able to improve muscle tone, posture, flexibility, and even balance. A study published in the journal Biological Research for Nursing in 2009 indicated that a 15-week jazz dance class once a week was beneficial for improving balance in women between the ages of 54 and 88 years old.

In 2005, McGill University researchers even discovered that tango dancing results in better balance, posture, and motor coordination in seniors previously afraid of falling when compared to participants that only walked.

3. Promotes heart health

A study published in the journal Circulation Heart Failure in 2008 found that waltz dancing safely improves endothelium-dependent dilation, similar to traditional aerobic exercise training, in patients with stable chronic heart failure.

4. Prevents dementia

A 21-year-old study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 found that aging adults that danced regularly had a 76% decreased risk for developing dementia.

Another study published in the journal Nursing Times in 2009 found that wu tao dance therapy boosted spirits and reduced agitation in patients with dementia.

5. Benefits emotional health

A meta-analysis of 27 studies published in The Arts in Psychotherapy in 2014 suggested that DMT and dance are effective for reducing depression and anxiety and increasing quality of life. Patients in the studies also experienced an increase in well-being, body image, and positive mood.

Another 2010 study found that dance therapy workshops for the elderly living in a home significantly improved cognitive function, quality of life, and psychological well-being.

6. Improves the quality of life in cancer survivors

A study published in the journal Cancer Nursing in 2005 found that a dance movement program addressed the emotional and physical needs of women after breast cancer treatment, while also improving breast-cancer specific quality of life.

7. Improves Parkinson’s disease

The tango is a specific dance thought to reduce the severity of Parkinson’s disease. A two-year study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2014 found that tango dancing improved motor and non-motor symptom severity, balance, and the performance of daily activities in a group of Parkinson’s disease patients.

A 2010 case study also showed that tango lessons improved endurance, balance, confidence, and quality of life in a patient with severe Parkinson’s disease.

Final Thoughts on Dancing and Dance Therapy

Dancing is also thought to improve weight loss, hearing loss, and diabetes. Overall, dancing and dance therapy is safe unless you’re taking medication. If that is the case, it is best to consult with a doctor before starting a dance program.

Other than that, the biggest problem you may have is deciding what type dancing will give you all those benefits. Any type of group dance class is a good option for those looking to socialize with others.

In summary, although dancing a popular pastime, it is also incredibly good for your health at any age. Many younger adults like to have fun dancing in nightclubs and at parties; however, dancing and dance therapy has been shown to benefit the health of anyone, especially older adults and seniors. Next time you are on the dance floor, remember that dancing improves balance, brainpower, and physical health while benefiting those with depression, anxiety, dementia, and even Parkinson’s disease.

Related Articles:

Reverse Aging in the Brain with Dancing?

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Duignan, D., et al., “Exploring dance as a therapy for symptoms and social interaction in a dementia care unit,” Nursing Times, August 4-17, 2009; 105(3): 19-22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19736794.
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