Older people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) may benefit significantly from participating in weekly dance classes, according to a new piece of research published in the journal Brain Sciences. Study participants took part in dance training for just over an hour a week over a three-year period, during which time their Parkinson’s-related symptoms showed no signs of progression.
Previous research has indicated that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) – which involves intermittent bursts of vigorous exercise – can trigger the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor that facilitates the reparation of damaged neurons. The study authors, therefore, designed a dance-based training program that mirrored HIIT in terms of intensity, but was tailored to stimulate key processes that are highly affected by PD.
“Dance is so complex, it’s a multi-sensory type of environment,” explained study author Karolina Bearss in a statement. “It incorporates and stimulates your auditory, tactile, visual and kinesthetic senses and adds an interactive social aspect. Regular exercise does not offer these aspects. There’s so much more to dance.”
A total of 16 Parkinson’s patients, with an average age of 69 years, were recruited to take part in the study. Over the course of three years, participants learned a sequence of choreographed dance moves while also completing a series of barre exercises, similar to those executed by ballet dance students while warming up.
“Daily motor rate of decline was zero […] indicating no motor impairment […] across three years,” write the researchers. “Similarly, non-motor aspects of daily living, motor experiences of daily living, and motor complications showed no significant decline.”
Participation in the study led to reduced motor complications associated with speech, balance and tremors, while cognitive decline, depression and anxiety were also attenuated by the dance-based therapy. In contrast, 16 control subjects who did not join the dance classes displayed a continued development of symptoms over the three-year period.
“Generally, what we know is that dance activates brain areas in those without PD,” explained study author Joseph De Souza. “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 do get worse over time. Our study shows that training with dance and music can slow this down and improve their daily living and daily function.”
Extrapolating their findings, the researchers predict that participating in weekly dance classes for five years would result in a 15-point advantage on the standard Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale in comparison to patients who don’t take part in dance training.
The study authors plan to continue following their subjects for a period of 10 years, and hope to investigate the changes that occur in the brain during dance classes in order to determine the mechanism behind this neuroprotective effect.