February 14th is Valentineís Day, and perhaps you will go dancing. It is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and on the beautiful island off the coast of New Zealand that I call home, the population increases from the usual 800 residents to a few thousand, as campers and hikers and holiday-makers come to relax and enjoy the bush, beach and sea. This summer, there was a new activity; a Beatles dance. Now they werenít THE Beatles of course, but they were a great substitute. It was a raging success: a hot night, a beautiful location, and everybody danced and danced and danced. Not waltzes and foxtrots, but freestyle. Partners, no partner, it didnít matter. The average age of the dancers, I would guess, was around 55, with a range from 12 to 80. Because everyone was so intent on dancing, and singing along with the songs from their own teenage and young adult years, the consumption of alcohol was considerably reduced, compared to a non-dancing social occasion. Many people were dressed in seventies gear, and we all know that as soon as we dress differently, we act differently and feel differently.
I wonder how many of the dancers knew they were engaging in the one physical activity that seems to beat all others in staving off cognitive decline and delaying the onset of dementia? A research article published in 2003 suggested just that (The New England Journal of Medicine, 2003, Volume 348, pp 2508-2516).
The long-term Bronx Aging Study, which began in 1980, looked at the leisure activities of 469 community dwellers aged 75 to 85 years with no signs of dementia when they were enrolled, to see if either physical or cognitive leisure activities delayed cognitive decline and dementia. A number of cognitive activities, including reading, playing board games, doing crossword puzzles at least four times a week, and playing musical instruments were associated with a lower risk of developing dementia over the next five or so years, but the only physical activity that decreased the risk of dementia was frequent dancing. Frequent dancing reduced the likelihood of developing dementia by a mind-boggling 76%, which was higher than any other cognitive or physical activity studied. Physical activities that did not appear to delay dementia onset included walking, bicycling and swimming. This was an observational rather than a carefully controlled study, with many inter-related factors to take account of, so one canít take this as the last word on the matter. And there were physical activities, such as golf and tennis, that were not included because fewer than 10% of the senior citizens participated in them. (more…)