I attended the Beverly Council on Aging’s “Senior Soiree” earlier this month as a representative from SeniorCare. The room was brilliantly decorated, tables set for a full dinner, and people were beautifully dressed. When the live band started playing, the dance floor filled with couples sharing the art of ballroom dancing. The joy on the faces of dancers and spectators was palpable.

Dancing can bring about delight and laughter and is almost an automatic response to music. Whatever the type of dancing, there are great benefits. Dance helps:

Strengthen bones and muscles.

Tone your entire body.

Improve your posture and balance, which can prevent falls.

Increase your stamina and flexibility.

Reduce stress and tension.

Build confidence.

Provide social interaction.

Challenge your system, from your hearing, vision and mental alertness to your coordination and cardiovascular system.

A 21-year study led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that people who regularly took part in ballroom dancing had a lower incidence of dementia. The study looked at cognitive activities such as reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments. And it studied physical activities like playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework.

The only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was dancing. Of all the activities studied, dancing frequently was the greatest risk reduction, showing a 76% reduced risk of dementia! While the exact reasons for this finding are not known, speculation is that in addition to being an aerobic activity, dancing uses “brain power” to memorize steps and also has a social component, which may contribute to the benefit for the brain by boosting mood.

Another study done at the Washington University in St. Louis in 2007 showed that patients with Parkinson’s disease who took part in regular tango dance classes for 20 sessions showed significant improvements in balance and mobility when compared to patients who did conventional exercise.

Researchers at Saint Louis University concluded that older adults with knee and hip discomfort may be able to swap their pain medications for dancing shoes. After a 12-week, low-impact dance program, participants (average age 80) were able to decrease the amount of pain medication they were taking by 39%. Study participants reported the ability to move around more easily, which is very important for anyone wishing to remain independent.

At the 2006 American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, scientists reported that waltzing improves ability to function in heart failure patients equally the same as other exercises. What the scientists found surprising is that the study participants who waltzed for exercise, rather than those who participated in other forms of exercise, showed a significantly higher improvement in quality-of-life measurements.

Dancing happens to be a universal form of exercise and recreation, as well. Seniors with conditions like Parkinson’s disease, dementia, cancer, arthritis, asthma and heart disease can all participate. Research into using dance as a therapy for each of these ailments has unearthed a host of advantages and very few risks. However, it’s always important to clear any exercises with a doctor before beginning a new regime, especially for those with pre-existing health conditions.

Several of the North Shore councils on aging and senior centers offer dance classes in a variety of styles. Call your local council on aging to see if it has a program you would enjoy. If it isn’t offering a class that suits you, ask it to consider one that you would like. There’s no guarantee that it will add the program, but the council won’t know to even consider it if it doesn’t know there’s an interest.

Tracy Arabian is the communications officer at SeniorCare Inc., a local agency on aging that serves Gloucester, Beverly, Essex, Hamilton, Ipswich, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Rockport, Topsfield and Wenham.

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