Dancing for your brain: How dance lessons can help your health

Studies suggest dance lessons could help delay dementia

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. – It's been 15 years since Barb and Ron Luginbill took their first dance lesson together. It was actually their daughter's wedding dance that inspired the Troy couple to give it a try.

"They did a really good tango," Barb said. "I thought, 'That looks like fun.'"

"And she said, "We're going dancing. You're going to take some lessons,'" Ron said. "And I said, 'OK.' And so we did."

Their dancing style before that?

"You know, sway back and forth. That's about it," Ron said.

But dancing was in Barb's blood.

"My dad, however, was a dancer, but I'm so upset because he never taught me Lindy Hop and all that stuff," she said.

Unfortunately, dementia runs in Barb's family too. Her mother is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, so Barb is particularly interested in research that suggests dancing can help reduce the risk of developing dementia.

A 21-year study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine compared different physical and cognitive activities. Although most of the physical activities improved cardiovascular health, they had little impact on the brain. 

That is, except one.

"Dancing frequently" reduced the risk of dementia by 76 percent, compared to 47 percent from doing crossword puzzles, or 35 percent from reading regularly.

Partner dancing is enjoying a new surge in popularity, but several studies suggest the benefits of learning to dance extend far beyond the dance floor.

Fortunately, you don't have to be a great dancer to reap the rewards. Research suggests it's the process of learning and practicing that boost your brain in a way nothing else can.

That doesn't surprise Ron.

"I just love to do it because it challenges me both mentally and physically," Ron said. "As a male, you have to think about the step you're doing, you have to think about the next step you're doing, you have to think about the people around you if you're in a social dance situation. And then you have to think about the technique, so there's a lot of things going on in your head."

That combination of physical, mental, social and musical challenges creates new neural pathways in the brain. A recent German study found older people who took weekly dance lessons actually reversed some signs of brain aging, particularly in hippocampus region, which plays a key role in memory and learning. Participants also improved their balance.

Ron and Barb take lessons at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills. Donald Westphal is their instructor.

"We all have a heartbeat, we all have rhythm, and just being able to connect to music with another person is just something that's very special," Westphal said.

Westphal teaches a popular senior class from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays. Many of the participants wanted to take lessons for years before finally taking the plunge.

"That's the hardest one to take is the first step to come into the studio. Once they're here, I think everybody has a blast with it," Westphal said.

"The beginner classes that these places offer are a very nonthreatening place to be. Everybody is a beginner," Barb said.

Don't worry if you don't have a partner.

"We make sure everybody has a chance to dance with other people. We trade partners, we rotate partners," Westphal said. "Anybody can enjoy the world of dance."

For Barb and Ron, it's a hobby that just might help their health, too.

"If you've always wanted to try it, just do it," Barb said. "Because it is fun. It really is fun."

The Fred Astaire Dance Studio also offers private lessons. To learn more about classes, click here.