Making the rounds throughout social media is a popular statistic claiming that dancing makes you smarter. Specifically, it cites a study that found that elderly people who dance frequently had a substantially lower risk of developing dementia.
At first glance, I happened to agree – duh! of course dancing makes you smarter! I may be a little biased though… so I’ve looked into the study further.
As usual, some of the statistics in these social media memes are wrong – but it turns out the actual study is positive and has some interesting information!
The study looked at senior citizens, aged 75 and older, who had not yet developed signs of dementia. They then followed up with them for the next 20 years, surveying their leisure activities and mental health. 1
Leisure activities included two broad groups: ‘cognitive activities’ (mostly using your mind) such as playing board games, reading, playing a musical instrument doing crossword puzzles, writing, and participating in group discussions, and ‘physical activities’ (mostly using your body) such as dancing, doing housework, walking, climbing stairs, bicycling, swimming, playing team games, participating in group exercise, and babysitting.
The results we’re interesting – it appears that ‘cognitive activities’ were associated with an overall decrease in chance of developing dementia, but the only ‘physical ability’ that as associated with less dementia was dancing! Also, another study in 2009 showed the same special result for ‘cognitive activities’. 2 Pretty interesting. I would argue that dancing is really a combination of the two types – which may explain why it had a unique result.
How much of a decrease though? Some of the stuff being shared around on social media sites quote numbers like “dancing decreased dementia by 76%”, and I think I once saw “up to 99%”. Not quite!
- There were 339 elderly folks who did not dance frequently, and 99 of them ended up developing dementia – they had a 29% chance of developing dementia.
- However, there were 130 who did dance frequently, and only 25 of them developed dementia – they had a 19% chance of developing dementia.
- Therefore, dancing frequently may have decreased the elderly folks chances of developing dementia by 10% (absolute risk reduction).
That’s pretty impressive!
It might not be as extravagant as the numbers thrown around social media, but it’s still encouraging! Lesson 1: be skeptical of big numbers that look too good to be true. Lesson 2: dancing does look like a promising way to prevent dementia!
Of course, with this type of research, we cannot establish cause and effect with certainty. It may also be that people who choose to dance are also the type of people who end up having less dementia. They may be the type of people who are mindful of their mental and physical well-being anyway. Furthermore, dancing requires quite a bit of coordination and balance. Perhaps their physical abilities or personalities lead to both an increase in dancing, and a decrease in dementia. Who knows? Future studies need to actually implement dance programs, and see if it actually makes a difference for everyone – not just people who choose to dance.
Still, this research is very encouraging. Dancing certainly is a unique combination of both physical and mental exercise, inherently involving social communication, and the integration of many cognitive functions (i.e. listening to music). It’s plausible that dancing isn’t just special to dancers, but to human beings as a whole. Perhaps I am biased, but personally, I believe the latter.
Either way, I love dancing, so I’m going to keep doing it as long as I can!
1. Verghese J, Lipton RB, Katz MJ, Hall CB, Derby CA, Kuslansky G, Ambrose AF, Sliwinski M, & Buschke H (2003). Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly. The New England journal of medicine, 348 (25), 2508-16 PMID: 12815136
2. Akbaraly TN, Portet F, Fustinoni S, Dartigues JF, Artero S, Rouaud O, Touchon J, Ritchie K, & Berr C (2009). Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly: results from the Three-City Study. Neurology, 73 (11), 854-61 PMID: 19752452
3. Spruance SL, Reid JE, Grace M, & Samore M (2004). Hazard ratio in clinical trials. Antimicrobial agents and chemotherapy, 48 (8), 2787-92 PMID: 15273082