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If you love to dance, here’s some delightful news from the research front: Moving to the beat boosts brain health and helps keep your memory sharp. In an intriguing paper published in Scientific American, Columbia University neurologist John Krakauer reports that synchronizing music and movement offers “a pleasure double play:” Music lights up the brain’s reward centers, while dance stimulates its sensory and motor circuitry.

Dr. Krakauer also reports that even watching others dance is intellectually stimulating because subconsciously, you are choreographing their next moves, and if they execute them with expert skill, your brain’s reward centers activate. Here are some recent discoveries about the physical and mental benefits of busting some moves on the dance floor:

Dancing Dramatically Reduces Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease

A number of studies have linked participating in leisure activities to lower risk for dementia. However, researchers weren’t sure if the activities themselves helped protect memory or if people with mild cognitive impairment (the precursor to dementia) were less likely to participate in these activities. To find out, one study examined the impact of 11 types of physical and mental activities on 469 adults aged 75 or older who were free of dementia at the start of the study and lived in the community (not in nursing homes).

The researchers examined the frequency at which the older adults engaged in the various activities at baseline and gave them memory tests, then tracked them for five years. During that time period, 124 of the volunteers developed dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease being the most common form. The researchers found that of all of the physical activities studied — including golf, swimming, exercise classes and biking — only one of them, dancing, decreased risk for memory loss. People who danced frequently were 76 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, compared to those who danced rarely or never, even when a wide range of risk factors were taken into consideration.

An Abundance of Mental, Physical and Emotional Benefits

Why is dancing so good for brain health? According to a recent report from Harvard Medical School, moving to the beat improves mood, reduces stress and helps the brain form new neural connections in regions involved in long-term memory, planning and executive function. Dancing also raises levels of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin and enhances psychological well-being.

Busting some moves on the dance floor also provides an excellent cardiovascular workout, helps you maintain a healthy weight and improves balance, flexibility and coordination. Other proven health perks include improved muscle tone and aerobic fitness, stronger bones and lower risk of osteoporosis, increased physical confidence and reduced danger of falls. Dancing has also been linked to improved self-esteem, better social skills and improvements in mood and mental functioning. 

Ready to give it a try? Always check with your provider before starting a new workout to make sure it’s right for you. If you get a medical okay, consider taking a Zumba, hip-hop, salsa or jazz class or watching a YouTube video with some rock-and-roll moves you’ve always wanted to learn. Then grab a partner and start shimmying. Or invite some friends over, put on your favorite tunes and show them how to bust some moves!