Latin dance found to protect working memory in older people

Cha cha cha! Dance your way to improved health!
Loukia Papadopoulos
Couple performing Latin dance.edwardolive/iStock

It’s fun. It’s exciting. It even allows you to meet new people, and now Latin dance has been found to improve memory in older populations, according to a press release by the University of Illinois published on June 10.

Significantly boosting working memory

The new study has found that Latinos aged 55 and over who participated in a culturally relevant Latin dance program for eight months significantly boosted their working memory. This group of peers was compared with a control group that attended health education workshops.

“Dance can be cognitively challenging,” said the study’s lead author, Susan Aguiñaga, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “When you’re learning new steps, you have to learn how to combine them into sequences. And as the lessons progress over time, you must recall the steps you learned in a previous class to add on additional movements.”

The dance program is called BAILAMOS and incorporates four types of Latin dance styles: merengue, salsa, bachata, and cha cha cha, explained Aguiñaga.

“It’s an appealing type of physical modality,” she said. “Older Latinos are drawn to Latin dance because most of them grew up with it in some way.”

The study recruited more than 330 Spanish-speaking Latino adults who were middle-aged or older and randomly assigned them to either the dance group or the control group. The latter met once a week for two-hour health education classes that covered topics such as nutrition, diabetes, and stress reduction.

Participants were, on average about 65 years old, with body mass indices that placed them in the obese category. In addition, about 85% of the study participants were female.

The researchers evaluated participants’ working memory – along with their episodic memory and executive function – using a set of seven neuropsychological tests before the intervention began, when it concluded after four months, and again at the end of the eight months.

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A significant difference noticed after eight months

The study found no differences in any of the cognitive measures between the dance participants and their counterparts in the health education group at four months. However, after eight months, people in the dance group performed significantly better on tests that assessed their working memory.

“That’s probably one of the most important findings – we saw cognitive changes after eight months, where participants themselves had been leading the dance classes during the maintenance phase,” Aguiñaga said. “All of our previous studies were three or four months long. The take-home message here is we need longer programs to show effects.”

“But to make these programs sustainable and create a culture of health, we also need to empower participants to conduct these activities themselves and make them their own.”

The study was published in the journal Frontiers.

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