Everyone likes a good dance, right? Personally, I’m itching to get back to the sticky floors of my local drum and bass nightclub—whenever that may be. Although DnB isn’t to everyone’s taste, I think we can all agree that the tribal act of dancing is good for the soul. It doesn’t just have its physical benefits, despite the fact that I burn basically my entire day’s calories on a night out, it also has its mental benefits too. A number of studies have shown that dance and music can have a significantly positive impact on mental health. And if that wasn’t good news enough, to add to that list, a recent scientific breakthrough has found that both can slow the progress of Parkison’s disease.
Parkinson’s disease is a condition in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over the years. The symptoms can be diverse, however the disease stereotypically causes involuntary shaking of particular parts of the body, slow movement and inflexible muscles. It’s believed to affect one in 500 people in the UK and, as of writing, there is no cure for the disease. That said, there are a number of treatments to support sufferers, from medication to physiotherapy, and now dance.
The new study published in the Brain Sciences academic journal on 7 July 2021, has suggested that individuals with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease can slow its progress by participating in dancing to music. Essentially, research showed that dancing to music for just one and a quarter-hour per week was enough to slow the pace of the debilitating disease. The study also found that, over the course of three years, doing so would reduce daily motor issues such as those related to balance and speech—common symptoms which can lead to social isolation when an individual is suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
The team of scientists behind the study are based in the Department of Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada. Joseph DeSouza, principal investigator and associate professional in the department, along with PhD candidate Karolina Bearss, found that patients who participated in the weekly dance training showed significant improvement in areas related to speech, tremors and rigidity compared to control groups. Their data also suggests dancing had a positive impact on patients’ quality of life, improving cognitive impairments and decreasing the rates of hallucinations. Not surprisingly, dancing also had a positive impact on their mental health—participants reported lower rates of depression and anxious moods such as sadness.
DeSouza remarked on the positive benefits this study can bring to those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. In an interview with EurekAlert!, he said that “the experience of performing and being in a studio environment with dance instructors appears to provide benefits for these individuals.” He continued, “Generally, what we know is that dance activates brain areas in those without PD. For those with Parkinson’s disease, even when it’s mild, motor impairment can impact their daily functioning—how they feel about themselves.”
“Many of these motor symptoms lead to isolation because once they get extreme, these people don’t want to go out. These motor symptoms lead to further psychological issues, depression, social isolation, and eventually, the symptoms worsen over time. Our study shows that training with dance and music can slow this down and improve their daily living and daily function.”
This obviously isn’t the only solution in combating Parkinson’s disease. However, it hints at how powerful music and dance can be in helping ease symptoms—both mentally and physically. Of course, as always with science, more research could and needs to be done—but to do so, it needs funding. One way of looking at this is that it highlights the importance of the therapeutic value of things that are actually fairly simple.
Music and dance are innate, it’s in our blood and, most importantly, free of charge. The simplicity is where its power lies. Indeed, music and dance would arguably need to be combined with other, more biological, forms of therapy—however, it highlights the importance to not overlook the arts as a form of therapy. Overall, this scientific breakthrough is not something to be downplayed; it’s a step in the right direction in helping us understand and ultimately combat this disease.
Last week, both The Guardian and The Telegraph published a series of articles shining a light on the fact that professional footballers are “three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases.” Multiple concussions and repeatedly performing headers on leather footballs are stated to be the main causes of brain disease. But football has been around since the 19th century, and the Alzheimer’s Society has highlighted that 1 in 4 of us will get dementia, so the real question is what is the link between the two, and, if there is one, is anything being done to prevent or cure dementia?
First, let’s make things clear—dementia and Alzheimer’s are not the same thing. Dementia is best described as an umbrella term for a range of progressive neurological disorders, in other words, conditions affecting the brain. There is a wide range of different types of dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common as it accounts for two-thirds of instances. The other three most common types are vascular dementia, frontotemporal (FTD), and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). Unfortunately, it is not unusual to also have a combination of different types of dementia.
As some may know, the biggest risk factor with Alzheimer’s is age, as it is a progressive disease that contains three stages. However, it is important to consider that each person will experience dementia in their own way, regardless of what type they may have. Scientists have declared that most forms of dementia are not hereditary, but that in rarer types of it there may be a genetic link, although that only accounts for a small proportion of cases.
In 2017, the Alzheimer’s Society published a study examining the possible link between dementia and head injuries sustained by playing football. Studies published within the article detailed that “the brains of sportspeople after they have died have identified that a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) could be linked to high-collision sports.” The study was revealed to be particularly complicated as a vast amount of the brains that were examined showed signs of more than one form of dementia. Researchers concluded the study by stating that “based on current evidence, the risk arising from contact sports in the development of dementia remains uncertain. If such a link does exist, the contribution of concussion and milder forms of head injury to overall risk is likely to be small.”
Fast-forward two years later, a new 22-month long research study proving otherwise has sparked wide debate among the media. The statement made by the Telegraph proclaimed that for footballers, “there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in Motor Neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s.” The research also mentions that, “former footballers were almost five times more likely to have been prescribed dementia drugs.” Additionally, it declares that they are unable to confirm if the causes of brain disease have occurred because of concussions or constant heading of footballs. After these results, the Football Association decided to financially back the research and encourage examinations to continue.
The statistics of people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s are rapidly increasing, so many are turning to science for clarification. Progression towards curing cancer looks promising, but for dementia, it is starting to look more than plausible. Scientists have conducted a sequence of tests that have proved successful for delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Social interaction is the most advised by doctors and nurses, as regular engagement has shown to spark brain connections, which can stimulate activity. Mental and physical exercise have also been tested to see if mental encouragement can slow down the Alzheimer’s, as well as slowing down cognitive declination. Both have been proven to be effective. Encouraging a person living with dementia or Alzheimer’s to keep a well-balanced diet is vital to improve their energy, as well as their memory.
Although it is not yet finalised, medical experts are on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. A mere three years ago, Alzheimer’s Research UK announced that plans for a vaccination that would delay the onset effects of Alzheimer’s were entering an early stage of clinical trials. The vaccine aims to halt, slow or reverse the disease in its tracks, and could possibly be life-changing for those who show symptoms of dementia in its early stages.
Dementia Awareness Month may have just passed by, but for families with people living with dementia or Alzheimer’s, awareness should be a daily occurrence, even though the future remains hopeful with a vaccine in sight. For anyone who wishes to improve their knowledge or understanding of dementia, inquiring at your local care home and spending some time with those living with the disorder is a good start.