Dance helps Parkinson’s patients, children

Show notes from the podcast – I hope you find them useful!

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Have you ever heard of DANCE for PD? I hadn’t until I researched what dance can do for your brain. You see, I’ve always loved dancing and I read Anat Baniel’s books about movement affecting the brain, so I was really curious about the neuroscience behind it. In my quest I found out that dance can have therapeutical effects on children, adults, and adults with Parkinson’s disease.

DANCE for PD Is an award-winning program that offers specialised dance classes, both online and in person, to people with PD, their families, their friends and their carers. It’s a research program, but also a therapeutic program, combined. The director of the programme, David Leventhal, said that he and his team started with just six people and then expanded the program globally with affiliates in 25 countries. 

Did you know that there are more than 40 peer-reviewed studies on the impact of dance on Parkinson’s? There is a particular study looking at what is changing in the brain because of the dance movements. The preliminary results see improvements in gait, balance, mobility and depression levels. The motor skills stop declining fast, sleep increases, which is great news. While the participants are dancing, they might even forget they have PD, says Dr Leventhal. Dance is creating bridges across neural circuits, and helps dancers to express themselves, have fun and connect with others, relieving their symptoms.

During the lockdowns and the severe movement restrictions many nations have experienced in 2020-2021, the number of dancers increased as the PD program was forced to go online. Family members joined in, weekly sessions became daily sessions. This has also happened across many sectors of education and work.

So can engagement with the arts help to prevent and slow diseases like dementia? According to Jess Bone, Research Fellow in Epidemiology and Statistics, University College London, yes. In the research of a cohort of 10.000 people she found that when people enjoy concerts, theatres, museums and art and craft/or music making activities events even every few months they developed less dementia over the following 12 years. This was true even if they had different situations and background.

There is robust evidence that doing these sort of activities reduces the chances of cognitive decline. Even an hour week was associated with improved cognitive function up to 7 years later. The improvements were as good as the one brought by performing only sport activities. Perfect Christmas time or holiday activities then ought be to enjoy these creative and motor based activities with someone you love, especially if they have Parkinson’s. 

What about the effect of dance on children?

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How do we improve their creative thinking and reading skills? The answers I found in the articles and interview suggest that we want to start as early as possible with simple activities such as clapping, drumming, singing, and tuning into music; in this way, children choose music for themselves later on, having a fun and positive experience in their early life. Music help to connect at all ages: choir singing, for example, is very powerful. Teens already have different social opportunities but the effect of focused art therapy intervention is different

Expressive writing helps in reducing stress, anxiety and trauma, and the effects are significant. Making masks using 3D equipment helps with strokes, and deep trauma, when using symbols gives the words you have lost.

Kelvin (the professor of the article ‘Creativity and the brain’ has shared in an interview an inspiring anecdote. He was running an art therapy group and he asked the students to draw a road that represented their life. He asked simple questions such as, ‘What does that road look like up to this point?’ One student stood up and started describing the road, and he said that there was a fork on his road, which represented how difficult it was for him when his parents got divorced. As he was talking, he choked up and began to cry. He put his head down and sobbed. There were 28 other adolescent just watching this – holding the space for him. So Kelvin waited a little, then asked the student to look up and look around. When he did it, Kelvin asked the class, ‘Who else had felt this way?’ And about 17 students put up their hand. And immediately he saw this student’s shoulder ease up. He looked around and Kelvin asked, ‘How do you feel?’ And he said, ‘I don’t feel alone, and I felt as if this experience was mine only.’ As you can see, art helps to connect people across experiences in a powerful way. 

How do we get our children more involved in the arts?

Look for good quality community music programs. Do not have expectations or barriers. Don’t expect your child to become a concert pianist and don’t force him to practice a set amount of hours or ‘he is not good enough’. Remember that music is about having fun and connection with others. Take your children to theatres, museums, exhibitions so they can find what suits them best.

As we learn through our sense, anything that involves our senses helps. i.e. cooking at home, singing in the shower, being together in nature, so that kids understand that the arts are fun. And when we bring the joy of art into our daily life we change our mood, our outlook of life. 

Be more playful at home, dance to some music, draw together, create stories where everyone can add a different ending. Arts are a healthy behaviour just like walking. In addition to 10.000 steps a day, take 10 minutes to enjoy art.

We are a driven society and we should learn to slow down and be present, feel that moment, experience what life has to offer: don’t be cut off from those experiences. 

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