More and more doctors are writing an unusual prescription for their patients withParkinson’s disease: Go out dancing and call me in the morning.
A growing body of research suggests that dance, notably the tango, can improve balance, strength and walking ability in people with neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, as well as multiple sclerosis and stroke.
“People who dance do better over the long term,” said Dr. Joy Antonelle de Marcaida, medical director of Hartford Hospital‘s Movement Disorders Center in Vernon.
Dance is among the therapies that de Marcaida uses to improve the lives of her patients. Other treatments she has available include oral and intra-intestinal medications, deep brain stimulation and botulin (Botox) injections, all of which have demonstrated some benefit to patients by slowing down the progression of neurodegenerative disorders.
But why dance?
The short answer is that research has shown it can slow the progress of some neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, which afflicts an estimated half-million people in the United States and for which there is no cure.
“This is not your traditional Western approach,” de Marcaida said of incorporating dance therapy into the more familiar therapies like medications, radiation and surgery.
Dance therapy has been gaining acceptance because researchers looking for new avenues of treatment have found that it works.
At the heart of all movement disorders is a breakdown or disconnect in the proper signaling between our brains and the peripheral nervous system that controls our muscles. The problems manifest themselves in balance and gait problems, poor coordination, involuntary or irregular muscle movements, tremors, tics and other repetitive movements.
In the case of Parkinson’s disease, the problems begin when certain clusters of neurons in the midbrain start to die. Researchers examining the benefits of exercise on our health noted not only the cardiovascular benefits and lower incidence of diabetes, but that it also had a positive effect our nervous system, both mentally and in terms of movement.
Researchers noticed that while all exercise proved beneficial, some forms were better than others. Dance proved better than walking and treadmill workouts for Parkinson’s patients. Research by Gammon Earhart, a professor of physical therapy, neurology and neurobiology at the School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis, found that the tango proved better than the waltz and fox trot, even better than tai chi, in improving movement in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
At the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital in Canada, the researchers also found that the Argentine tango seemed “particularly helpful for improving balance and functional mobility in patients.” It seems that the “specific steps that involve rhythmically walking forward and backward” engage our “working memory, control of attention, and multitasking to incorporate newly learned and previously learned dance elements.” It kind of kick starts your mind-body connection as and your partner move.
Dance as a treatment for Parkinson’s is widely accepted and is endorsed by the American Parkinson Disease Association.
At the center in Vernon, dance instruction is based a program developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group of New York in collaboration with the Brooklyn Parkinson Group, a nonprofit organization that runs programs benefiting Parkinson’s patients and their families, friends and caregivers. Through the program, patients get to explore and create movement in a variety of dance styles including the tango.
De Marcaida sees the benefits in her patients.
David Popick, 34, of Ellington, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a year ago. He has added dancing to his regimen of exercises shown to benefit those with Parkinson’s. He came to the center for the first time in May and plans to continue with the program.
“I feel differently when I dance,” Popick said. “It’s like I can move again like I used to.”
Beyond the benefits of better coordination, de Marcaida said dancing seems to make her patients happier. She thinks part of the success has something to do with the social nature of dancing. But there is also a proven physiological response.
“The music is an integral part of this program, it activates neuronal connections in different parts of the brain,” she said.
She acknowledged that dancing is not a cure for Parkinson’s, but said it can enhance the quality of life for people living with the disease. And a whirl around the dance floor is a lot more fun and a lot less expensive than a trip to the pharmacy.
With a prescription for dancing, de Marcaida said, “we can give a treatment that’s not $100 a pill.”
The Hartford Hospital Movement Disorders Center is at 35 Talcottville Road, Suite 6, Vernon. The phone number is 860-870-6385.