By: Erin Conard Fetz, President, ChoreoNation
Ask a dancer what’s beneficial about their practice and they will likely ask how much time you have. Even to non-dancers, the benefits would seem fairly obvious: it is, after all, exercise, but family and caregivers of seniors struggling with Parkinson’s and other cognitive & motor-based diseases have developed a new appreciation for the art and science of dance.
At least one pilot study titled “ ‘Dance Therapy’ as a psychotherapeutic movement intervention in Parkinson’s disease” has demonstrated that a form of dance may well be an effective treatment for the symptoms of Parkinson’s. The study, conducted at Northwestern University in Illinois, was published in the medical journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine in October 2018. Researchers Michels, Dubaz, Hornthal and Bega compared a group of seniors who participated in Dance Movement Therapy (DMT) sessions to a control group. Using the Movement Disorder Society Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (MDS-UPDRS), Michels et. al were able to objectively compare the disease progression in both groups. After ten weeks of one, 60-minute DMT session per week, the test group outperformed the control group’s motor skills by 13.2 points (mean motor skills: 27.6 test /. 40.8 control).
These improved motor skills also followed the participants back home. Researchers found a statistically significant improvement in the test group’s ability to complete daily life activities, such as getting dressed and preparing a meal. Several DMT patients also reported experiencing improvement in non-motor related symptoms such as fatigue and cognition.
Determining exactly how dance therapy brings about the reduction in symptoms is more difficult than identifying them in the first place. “Dance may be effective in targeting motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease because it incorporates the stretching and strengthening of muscles, and increases flexibility throughout the body, which may help maintain balance in people with Parkinson’s,” the Northwestern researchers wrote. In fact, a study published by Hackney & Earhart in 2011 found that, specifically, the Argentinian Tango may have the effect of over‐riding problems in the brain associated with balance and gait in Parkinson’s Disease.
“Another possibility is that practice of dance may activate areas of the brain that normally show reduced activation in Parkinson’s,” they added.
Dance Movement Therapy is defined as the psychotherapeutic use of movement to improve physical, emotional, cognitive, and social wellbeing. It focuses on balance, coordination, gait, and mobility but also on less visible symptoms including anxiety, depression, fatigue and digestive complications. As part of a Parkinson’s treatment plan, dance/movement therapy does not use the stylized choreography to which traditional dancers are accustomed but rather encourages patients to move and find comfort in their bodies to express themselves creatively when words may fail them.
DMT is conducted by a certified dance movement therapist. Each individual or group session will be different, but patients may begin a session by systematically moving each muscle in their body from head to toe and end with a physical demonstration of how they’re feeling. The latter leading to further psychotherapeutic discussions.
The Northwestern study clearly demonstrated the positive effects of DMT on motor skills in Parkinson’s patients, but it also uncovered evidence of improving or slowing the decline of patients’ cognitive function. Since then, the medical community has continued to evaluate dance therapy to see if it may duplicate its positive results across other physical and cognitive deteriorating illnesses, including dementia.
Dementia describes a broad range of progressive degenerative brain syndromes that affect memory, thinking, behavior, emotions, and social functioning. According to Alzheimer’s Disease International, by 2030 there will be roughly 65.7 million people suffering from dementia worldwide, with Alzheimer patients being the largest contributor to the dementia population. Considering population trends, dementia will remain an important issue with immediate and major impact upon families, services, and societies as a whole.
The medical community agrees that the most effective treatments for dementia address the person as a whole: physical, emotional, social, cognitive and spiritual (Kitwood 1997). Based on those criteria, DMT would appear a logical treatment strategy. To be specific, dance therapy may positively affect the cognitive and psychological states of dementia sufferers in one or more of the following ways:
Future research will certainly bring clarity to why DMT is an effective treatment for the symptoms of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other cognitive and motor deteriorating diseases. Until then, dancers may add these initial findings to the already long list of reasons they decided long ago to NEVER STOP PERFORMING.