Dancing Can Help Prevent Dementia

04/26/2017 06:12 pm ET

A few simple steps (dance steps that is) can help you reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

As the people we care about age, we worry about dementia. Statistics can be frightening: One in every 10 Americans over 65 has Alzheimer’s disease. One-third of seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Since 2000, deaths from heart disease have gone down by 145%, while deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased by 89%. Although there are drugs that can slow the progression of the disease for a few months or years, ultimately Alzheimer’s is fatal.

In the face of these facts, we need to promote and donate to research aimed at treatment and cure. Alzheimer’s research has traditionally been funded at a fraction of the spending on the other top ten causes of death, and we haven’t had a new drug with proven effectiveness in 14 years.

In addition, we can make small lifestyle changes that may help prevent or delay contracting this dreaded disease. For example, you may have heard of the benefits of doing crossword puzzles and board games. While some recent research questions the rate of efficacy, other studies found that doing these kinds of puzzles at least four times a week may significantly decrease or delay the chances of Alzheimer’s.

Reading regularly can reduce incidence by 35%. Other factors make common sense and are widely beneficial for our health anyway: Quit smoking, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, eat a healthy diet, control diabetes, and stay socially involved. (For recommendations of ten foods to consume more regularly and five foods to avoid, see the MIND diet developed at Rush University.)

Interestingly, the number one recommendation for dementia prevention is aerobic exercise, particularly if it also involves split-second decision making. Think, for instance, of an active team sport, in which players raise their heart rates while also having to decide instantaneously where to hit the ball or how to move. This combination of aerobic activity with mental stimulation is ideal for the brain. One difficulty is that as people age they are often functionally less able to participate in active team sports, and unfortunately, the sport of golf was found to have no impact whatsoever!

Despite that restriction, there is one thing most of us can do as we age … dance!

A Stanford University professor interpreted the data in studies done by the Mayo Clinic and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and concluded that people who dance to an aerobic level at least eleven times a month can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by an almost unbelievable 76%! The effect is particularly true when dancing with a partner in ways that involve leading and following, as the mental decision-making is more astute. Yet any dance at all requires deciding how to move to the music, follow a changing beat, or adjust mentally as well as physically.

So if you want to help the seniors in your life stay as cognitively sharp as possible, think about giving them a gift certificate for dance lessons. While you’re at it, go with them! Keep your body and your mind healthy.

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