How dancing can help slow — and potentially reverse — the ageing process

Watch part one of Catalyst’s Keep On Dancing on ABC iview. Part two airs on ABC TV and ABC iview next Tuesday, October 11.

ABC Health & Wellbeing


By science reporter Gemma Conroy for Catalyst

Posted 10h ago10 hours ago, updated 13m ago13 minutes ago

A group of nine older people wearing white in various dance poses
Dancing isn’t just a great workout — it can also slow down the ageing process.(ABC: Catalyst )

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For most of us, dancing is a fun way to unwind, or something we do after a few too many drinks on a Saturday night.

But what if dancing can actually help to slow — or in some cases even reverse — the ageing process? The ABC’s Catalyst program wanted to find out.

In his youth, Roderick spent his weekends dancing the night away at rave parties. 

“I thought I was a good dancer,” the 67-year-old says.

Older man wearing white with hands on his hand and eyes closed
Roderick had experienced numbness in his legs for years — until he started dancing. (ABC: Catalyst)

But Roderick’s life changed four decades ago when he was diagnosed with HIV.

Since taking antiretroviral medication for his illness, he developed peripheral neuropathy — a condition that causes numbness, weakness and pain in the hands and feet.

The drug that saved Roderick’s life has left him without any feeling in his legs, making it difficult for him to balance — let alone dance.

“It was like walking on rubber,” he says.

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Recently, Roderick joined eight other participants in a Catalyst experiment that explored how dance can help older people improve their physical and mental wellbeing. 

Over 12 weeks, the participants spent four hours each week learning a routine that combined dance and sign language.

Led by Australian choreographer Kelley Abbey, the program culminated in a live performance at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney.

The participants also took part in seven health-based assessments that measured their physical and cognitive abilities before and after the program.

But after just three rehearsals, Roderick had already made a breakthrough.

After 10 years of living without any feeling in his legs, he says he began to feel a twinge of pain in his calf muscle while doing some stretches.

“It’s pain, but it’s bloody good pain.”

And there was more good news to come.

The big slowdown

Love it or hate it, we are all getting older. When we look in the mirror, we might notice a few more wrinkles or strands of silver hair, but there are also a lot of changes happening on the inside.

For one, we slowly begin to lose muscle mass at around the age of 35, a process that speeds up after we turn 60. This can make us weaker and more susceptible to fatigue, making it tougher to get our bodies moving. 

The way we walk also changes. While we may have been able to dart across the street in our youth, we tend to take shorter, slower steps as we get older, leading to unsteadiness on our feet. trips and falls in older age

So, it’s no surprise that falls are the most common cause of injury-related deaths in people over the age of 75, according to data from NHS Digital in the UK.

“That can be one of the most problematic physical aspects of ageing,” says Rachel Ward, a biomechanical scientist at UNSW Sydney.

“Falls are a huge burden on the public health system.”

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Dealing with these physical challenges and the risks that come with them can impact daily life.

Over time, it can become more tempting to take it easy and skip exercise altogether. 

On top of that, our cognitive abilities — such as being able to recall names, numbers and do mental calculations on the spot — can take a hit.

But staying fit and mentally sharp go hand in hand — for better or worse, says Emily Cross, a cognitive neuroscientist at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development at Western Sydney University. 

Black older woman in blue fur coat smiling with arms raised
The more you move, the longer you’ll keep your mind and body young.(Getty Images: Flashpop)

If you’re not moving as much, you’re also not giving your brain enough of a workout.

“We hear it again and again — the use it or lose it mantra,” Professor Cross says.

“That’s particularly the case for physical activity and the maintenance of physical circuits in the brain.”

Get your groove on

But it’s not all doom and gloom. While any form of exercise is good for the mind and body, dancing ticks every box in one go.

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Unlike doing squats or lifting weights, dancing is like multitasking on steroids.

You’re moving your body through space, remembering sequences of steps, coordinating with other dancers around you — all while moving in time with music (or trying to!).

This gives your body a 360-degree workout, Dr Ward says.

“What’s unique about dance is that you’re not just doing the same movement over and over … you’re learning so much at the same time,” she says. 

“All of that provides a constant musculoskeletal and neurological challenge.”

Dancing is particularly good for your heart. One 2016 study on more than 48,000 participants over the age of 40 found that those who danced had a 46 per cent lower risk of dying from heart disease compared to non-dancers.

Several studies have also linked dancing with improved balance, flexibility, muscle strength and coordination. 

Older women standing at a bar learning ballet
Dance is a great way to improve your balance, flexibility and agility. (Supplied: Meg Letton/UNSW)

By the end of the Catalyst experiment, all the participants saw improvements in their fitness, balance and agility.

On the four-square step test — which measured how quickly participants could step between four squares — Roderick improved his time by over 30 per cent.

And while he struggled to balance on one leg at the beginning of the program, he was able to stand on his right leg for 30 seconds after 12 weeks of dancing.

Older woman in white smiling and standing in a dance pose
Dancing can be beneficial for people with Parkinson’s, like 72-year-old Anni.(ABC: Catalyst)

Dancing can also help people with conditions like Parkinson’s disease — which affects about one in 100 people over the age of 65.

People with Parkinson’s disease often find it difficult to control their movements.

But dancing to music can help them tap into parts of their brain that aren’t as affected by the disease, helping them to find more flow in their movements, says Natalie Allen, a neurological physiotherapist who specialises in Parkinson’s disease at The University of Sydney.

“The rhythm of the music helps people with Parkinson’s to move more freely and easily,” Dr Allen tells Catalyst.

Anni, 72, was diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson’s disease this year after noticing a tremble in her hands.

Balance can become an issue as Parkinson’s disease progresses, but after taking part in Catalyst’s dance experiment, Anni reduced the wobble in her stance by a whopping two-thirds. Warhurst takes Anni to a Dance For Parkinson’s session to see if it can help.

A disco for your brain

Whether you’re trying to master ballroom dancing or a perfect pirouette, dancing makes your brain light up.

All that learning can also reshape and forge new pathways in your brain.

A 2021 study on 60- to 79-year-olds found that doing a combination of brisk walking and social dancing increased the amount of white matter — neural tissue that enables brain cells to rapidly send and receive messages.

“With dance, we have the whole complement of cognitive and social tasks going on,” Professor Cross tells Catalyst.

“If you want to stave off neurological decline in general, dance is a great way to exercise your brain across multiple domains.”

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It’s tricky to study what’s happening in people’s brains while they’re spinning and swaying in a rehearsal room.

But Professor Cross has done the next best thing: taking a peek at what’s happening in people’s brains as they watch a video of their teacher performing a dance routine they’re learning.

“If you’re going to learn to dance, you’re going to learn by watching someone else do it,” she says.

“You have to translate what you’re seeing in other people’s bodies onto your own.”

Our brains contain special cells called mirror neurons, which allow us to learn through watching someone else.

These cells are located in areas of the brain involved in controlling body movements, spatial awareness and attention.

Professor Cross and her team have found that this network of mirror neurons kicks into gear while people are watching and learning — even if they’re just watching a video of someone else performing the routine they’ve learnt.

“These regions are sharpening their responses and are really kind of coming online in a way that helps you bridge that gap between what you see someone else do with their body, and what you do with your body,” Professor Cross says.

The good news is that these same regions switch on in people of all ages, indicating that the brain never loses its ability to learn new things.

“It’s really, really exciting that the learning is kind of shaping these brain circuits,” Professor Cross says.

“It means you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

This cognitive boost was also seen in Catalyst’s dancers.

Shirley, who five years ago was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease — the most common form of dementia — had the biggest improvement of all the participants.

An older man and woman wearing white and holding hands as they dance
Shirley (right) has Alzheimer’s disease, but she noticed her cognition improve after 12 weeks of dancing. (ABC: Catalyst)

In the beginning, Shirley’s performance on the cognitive tests was much poorer than the rest of the group.

But after three months of dancing, her test results were closer to the rest of the participants.

“It’s fantastic, I can’t believe it,” the 75-year-old tells Catalyst.

And while Shirley may not be able to dance away her condition entirely, her results show that the physical, creative and social aspects of dance can be beneficial.

“All these aspects of dance can potentially help slow the progress of dementia,” Professor Cross says.

The ultimate mood booster

One in eight Australians over the age of 65 are socially isolated or experience loneliness, which can lead to low mood and poor mental health.

While going for a walk with friends is one way to stay connected, dancing gets you out of your comfort zone in ways that other types of exercise don’t, Professor Cross says.

“If you’re learning new things and making mistakes, and laughing at yourself and with each other, there’s potential for building social bonds that you might not get if you’re just in a walking group,” she says.

“There’s expressing yourself through your bodily motions, and none of the other physical activities will have that.”

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Several studies have shown that dancing for at least 150 minutes a week can reduce depression in older people, while others have found that it can help alleviate anxiety and social isolation.

It’s also a great confidence boost, which Shirley experienced for herself in the Catalyst experiment as she started getting the hang of the dance routine after a few weeks of rehearsals.

“The fact that I can do it and I’m getting my head around it all … I really value that,” she says.

“I feel that I belong and I’m not a burden to others.”

A group of older people dancing in couples
Dancing is a great way to boost mood and connect with others.(Getty Images: Thomas Barwick)

With so many different styles of dance out there, it can be difficult to figure out how to pick just one. But you can’t really go wrong, Dr Ward says.

“I think any form of dance is going to provide a physical, mental and cognitive challenge.”

A good way to narrow down your options is to consider the type of music you’ve always enjoyed and how much you want to move, Dr Ward says.

But ultimately, the most beneficial form of dancing is the one that you enjoy the most.

“When we talk about the best intervention, it’s the one that people want to stick with,” Professor Cross says.

For Roderick the benefits are “life-changing”. By the end of the program, he experienced complete feeling in his legs after 10 years of numbness.

“The joy of actually feeling the sheets on your legs … I can actually differentiate between hot and cold now,” he says.

“I’ll be keeping on dancing, that’s for sure.” 

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