Different types of dancing use different parts of the brain – a curious phenomenon which a University of Auckland researcher is hopeful will benefit people with dementia.
Carlene Newall de Jesus, approaching the end of her PhD and is currently a researcher within the university's Dance Studies and Centre for Brain Research, says there is already significant evidence that dancing helps people with dementia.
There has been international interest and much research in the link between dance and treating dementia but central questions remain: why and how does dance beneficially impact people with dementia?
Newall de Jesus says her PhD and ongoing research is looking at those questions to try and determine which particular types of dance might be most beneficial.
"What we do know at present is that different types of dancing activities use different parts of the brain," she says, "and that dancing is so valuable to people with dementia.
"But the real question is which dance is going to give best results and, if we can ever get to the stage where dancing is a prescriptive measure, what sort of dancing works best?"
Her existing work shows that, for dancing to benefit people with dementia, it is not just a matter of a teacher getting up in front of a class copying the moves – like Zumba, for example.
"My particular focus is bringing together science and the arts," says Newall de Jesus, who has a BA in psychology, a postgraduate diploma and Masters in science (Health Psychology) as well as a Bachelor of Performing Arts (Dance), "and what we are looking at is a much wider idea of dancing as opposed to Zumba, ballet and ballroom, for example."
She has had some success with what she terms "community dancing" – dance that does not follow prescribed steps, like ballroom dancing, but which merges together creative movement, personal memories, music, expression and socialisation.
It also helps get around the fact many dementia sufferers are hesitant to try new things, particularly those they perceive as difficult – like ballroom dancing, for example.
She completed her pilot research in 2015 in a six-week dance project involving postgraduate dance studies students from the University of Auckland and 12 people with Alzheimers aged between 51 and 75.
"We explored ways or creating movement in a variety of fun and interactive ways," Newall de Jesus says. "The class danced together to familiar music hits from the past, allowing the people living with dementia to bring their life experience to the students – so the mutual sharing of ideas, skills and laughter enriched the experience for everyone.
"That's why you can't just restrict dancing to one genre or even more than one," she says.
"The basic philosophy of community dancing is that everyone can move and everyone can move in an artistic way – and that involves not only music, exercise and fun but also decision-making and socialisation."
According to the Harvard Medical School's On The Brain journal, scientists gave little thought to the neurological effects of dance until relatively recently, when researchers began to investigate the complex mental coordination that dance requires.
In a 2008 article in Scientific American magazine, a Columbia University neuroscientist suggested synchronising music and movement—dance, essentially—constituted a "pleasure double play." Music stimulates the brain's reward centres, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits.
A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine discovered that dance can decidedly improve brain health. The study investigated the effect leisure activities had on the risk of dementia in the elderly.
Researchers looked at the effects of 11 different types of physical activity, including cycling, golf, swimming, and tennis, but found that only one of the activities studied—dance—lowered participants' risk of dementia. According to the researchers, dancing involves both a mental effort and social interaction and that this type of stimulation helped reduce the risk of dementia.
That's where Newall de Jesus is coming from. Socialisation is a massive factor in guarding against the development of dementia; loneliness is the enemy and often a factor in those affected.
"It's the same thing with exercise – those who continue to exercise are known to be less likely to develop dementia," she says," so this work is designed to help identify all components of human activity that can help.
"At present there is not a cure for dementia but dance may be able to help delay the onset or even help prevent it and, for those who have already developed it, to give them a better quality of life."