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For millions of people with Parkinson’s disease, movement becomes much harder. But researchers have found that dance therapy may help them both physically and mentally.

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Image Sources:
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/mri-of-the-patients-head-close-up-one-picture-from-the-series-gm1140748326-305375173
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https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/couple-dancing-tango-in-studio-gm1153410746-313245774
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/brazilian-male-teacher-and-students-practicing-in-studio-gm1202686888-345380829
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The first thousand people to click the link in the description can get a two-month free trial of Skillshare’s Premium Membership. [ ♪ INTRO ]. For older adults, the ability to move is often a big deal.

It can be a huge factor in keeping independent and staying safe. But for millions of people with Parkinson’s disease, movement becomes much harder. Parkinson’s can cause tremors, muscle rigidity, and a harder time with balance.

And while there is medication for it, it’s not perfect, so many patients supplement their meds with physical therapy or exercise. Just like how scientists want to know how drugs help a disease, they also want to know which of these supplemental treatments work best. And out of this wave of research, one treatment has popped up as a unique match for Parkinson’s patients: dance therapy.

Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative disease, meaning it’s a result of dying neurons. And in this case, neurons are dying in the substantia nigra, near the middle of the brain. This region produces dopamine, and it uses it to communicate with other brain areas that help control motion.

So, when cells in the substantia nigra die, there’s less dopamine to go around, and this communication system is disrupted. As a result, someone develops those motor symptoms — along with some cognitive ones, like trouble focusing. To help with this, doctors will usually prescribe medication that replaces the missing dopamine.

But while it can help, the brain can also stop responding to it after a while, so many patients still have a hard time walking or balancing. And that’s where physical therapy and exercise come in. In the last 20 years or so, a lot of research has gone into studying things like strength training, stretching, or even biking for people with Parkinson’s.

Each intervention is designed differently, but for the most part, these things work. There’s evidence that these routines can improve balance, reduce falls, and improve walking speed. As for why?

Well, recent studies have found that exercise might help the brain pump out more dopamine or use it more efficiently, and it might also cause the brain to produce compounds that protect neurons from damage. But of all the therapies out there, dance therapy is the one that really shines. Partly because it’s fun, so people want to keep doing it, but also because dancing seems to do some cool things to our brains.

Like other exercise interventions, there is no “one size fits all” model here. If you showed up to one of these group classes, you’d most likely perform a Tango. But there are others, from salsa dance to Irish set dancing, ballroom, and ballet.

Some classes don’t even have a style — they just focus on getting people to move regularly or express their emotions through movement. In any case, the choice of dance is more than stylistic: Evidence suggests that certain styles might be helpful for different symptoms. For instance, a Tango features a lot of stop and go, and sharp changes in direction.

So it may be appropriate for targeting the slower movement seen in Parkinson’s. Basically, by intentionally practicing Tango moves in a class, someone would get practice moving their body more quickly — benefits that would carry into everyday life. Meanwhile, ballet involves more strength and flexibility, so it may be more useful in helping someone practice maintaining posture and improving coordination.

Technically, you could practice these motions in silence, in a more traditional physical therapy setting. But the music makes things more interesting. And what’s maybe even cooler is that the rhythm of the music might actually provide a cue that helps a dancer’s brain start movement.

Very few studies have used imaging techniques to look at brain activity during dancing, mostly because that’s very hard to do. The machines we use for that kind of thing are usually big and bulky! But some studies on Parkinson’s patients have found that walking to a beat led to bigger improvements in things like gait and step size than walking to silence.

Researchers have speculated that this may be because the auditory cortex, which processes sound, provides some sort of unique signal to the parts of the brain in charge of motion. At this point, it’s hard to say exactly what that signal might look like. Maybe it’s a matter of what specific brain areas that signal goes to.

But the idea seems to be that music primes the brain to get going in a way silence cannot — which would give dance therapy benefits over regular exercise. One way or another, there is plenty of evidence that dance therapy improves physical symptoms, including balance and walking speed. So whatever’s happening neurologically, it works.

Also, one last thing worth noting is that this therapy shines when it comes to non-physical symptoms, too, like mental health. Studies show that it can improve mood and quality of life in older adults with Parkinson’s. Which totally makes sense — dancing with a group of people is a good time!

We’ve been doing it since we were people. And that’s wonderful, because having Parkinson’s is about more than just physical symptoms. Those are important to treat, but diseases like this can be hard to mentally cope with, too — so the fact that dance therapy seems to address both is a huge plus.

Ultimately, there’s a lot we don’t know for sure about how dance affects the brain, but what we do know is encouraging. And with a disease like Parkinson’s, which doesn’t have a permanent cure, that means a lot. Over time, we’ll probably learn more about how moving to music changes the way our brains operate.

But in the meantime, Tango classes will continue. If all this talk of dance has gotten you in the mood to boogie, you might want to check out Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community with a bunch of art-related courses — including some dance ones.

There’s actually a really cool class about how to make an animated character dance in Adobe After Effects, which looks like a great time. If you want to check it out, you can access all of Skillshare’s classes with a Premium. Membership — which, for an annual subscription, comes out to less than $10 a month.

Also, if you just want to try it, you can get a two-month free trial if you’re one of the first thousand people to click the link in the description. When you do, you’ll be supporting SciShow along the way — so, thanks! And if you find any cool classes, let us know. [ ♪OUTRO ].