Learning to tango might seem like a challenge for even the most coordinated of enthusiasts, let alone for people who struggle with everyday movement. But new research released this week has found that learning a few dance moves can have a wide range of benefits for those with Parkinson’s disease. The findings open up a new approach to treating the disease that is both enjoyable and addresses many of the problems sufferers commonly encounter.
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Movement is coordinated by several areas of the brain. Before you move, your brain has to take the desire to move and translate that into a set of instructions about how to make that movement. The brain then has to filter through all of the possible instructions being made for movement and allow through those that will get the job done. Those winning signals trigger muscle activation that allows a person to move.
Those with Parkinson’s have a problem with this filter. Normally a group of neurons release a chemical called dopamine to bring this filter down and allow needed movement to occur. But in a person with Parkinson’s disease, those neurons begin to die and the brain slowly loses its ability to allow movements through the filter. As a result, movement happens at the wrong time, in the wrong way, or not at all. This is why those with Parkinson’s have trouble walking, may seem rigid, and often have trouble with facial expressions. Over time, more of the brain is affected, which leads problems with sleep, mood and information processing.
How is Parkinson’s disease normally treated?
The main approach for treating Parkinson’s has been to increase the amount of dopamine present in the brain to replace what’s being lost. Drugs given encourage release of dopamine from neurons that are still alive, prevent dopamine from being degraded in the brain, and replace dopamine not being released by giving it directly. While these drugs work, they only work well for a limited time. As more and more dopamine releasing neurons die, individuals depend more and more on replacing dopamine. While medication can stave off symptoms for years, eventually the medications stop working.
Some non-medication approaches have also seemed to help. Regular exercise and rehabilitation has been shown to help those with Parkinson’s increase their strength, balance, flexibility and speed. Tai chi also seems to help improve balance and function in those who have mild to moderate symptoms.
What did this study examine?
This study wanted to know if tango might help those suffering from Parkinson’s. They thought this for two reasons. First, music is associated with dopamine release in the brain, making it a possible way to up dopamine levels in those who are low. Second, the tango requires careful movement in time with the beat and balance and coordination to perform the movements. The team gathered 33 individuals with Parkinson’s. About half spent 12 weeks taking tango lessons, while the other half were given some instructions about exercises to do at home that could help their symptoms.
After 12 weeks, both groups were assessed to see how severe their symptoms were. The team found that those who did tango had better balance and some improvement in their levels of fatigue and ability to process information. While they didn’t see any difference in movement symptoms between the two groups, the researchers think it may take more time learning the dance moves to see a real difference.
How does this apply to me?
Most impressive in the study was how much the participants enjoyed learning to tango and how important the social aspect of learning to dance became for them. While you might not know someone who has Parkinson’s, this study shows that dancing has clear benefits for all adults as they age. Learning to dance builds physical fitness and good balance while exercising your brain and building social bonds with others. If you’re looking for a great way to keep yourself feeling younger and healthier, check out a dance class.