While recently visiting my mother at the Pickersgill Retirement Community in Baltimore, Maryland, I noticed her unsteady gait had again worsened. Since her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease (PD) ten years ago, my mother has been treated with multiple medications, yet her condition deteriorates with each visit.
Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative movement disorder. According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, Parkinson’s disease affects about one million people in the United States and more than four million people worldwide. The disorder occurs in all races, but Parkinson’s is somewhat more prevalent among Caucasians. Men develop the disease slightly more often than women. Traced back to dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked to motor and movement disorders, low levels of dopamine cause gait and imbalance, rigidity and tremors, shaking, impairment of fine-motor skills, and falling when walking in all PD patients. Yet, new research has found that there are direct links to dance decreasing tremors in Parkinson’s sufferers. Therefore, dance may be an effective alternative to traditional exercise for individuals with PD.
Tango and Symptom Alleviation
In a 2008, a study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that patients with Parkinson’s disease who took Argentine tango classes fared better than patients who participated in non-dance exercise programs in improving their balance and movement abilities. Although dance has been shown to improve balance and mobility in patients with Parkinson’s disease, Tango requires a crossing over from one side of the body to another, which may affect the right and left brain connection, and cause an even greater reduction of PD symptoms. Tango has also been found to be helpful in dynamic balance, turning, initiation of movement, moving at a variety of speeds, and walking backward.
While my mother and I sat side-by-side in a small auditorium, an electronic pianist entertained us. As my mother sang along, her legs, right arm, and hand were in a constant tremor. When the performer began playing, “Heart of My Heart,” she looked at me and said, “Let’s dance.” That sunny day as I moved with my mother across the dance floor, her tremors stopped. I was careful to hold her until she was comfortable and repeated patterns once she was moving freely. I only added a new move when she had completed a pattern. That was my cue to add another step or a turn. I said, “Mom, I’m going to turn you now,” so that she was not taken by surprise. Her balance was maintained when she was cued ahead of time so she turned gracefully. As you can see in the video, these movements were also easily demonstrated while dancing a slow swing but seem to improve more significantly with tango moves such as backward footwork.
Within minutes, there was no hint of her disease and she was lightly dancing across the floor with no tremors. Although my mother practices Tai Chi and yoga, she has been encouraged by the research on dance because more and more researchers are finding dance to be the most effective way to combat PD’s degenerative symptoms.
UCSF neurologist Dr. Alec Glass says dance versus ordinary exercise helps PD patients regain balance and fight depression, sometimes better than medication. According to Glass’s studies, “The community formed by dancing, the music, and sort of being together, and there is even a little bit of evidence that suggests at least that those patients are happier and it may help in treating depression.”
For years I have been teaching mind body psychology at Ryokan College in Los Angeles and have studied as a ballroom dancer and as a tango dancer in Buenos Aires. While teaching my class and in my practice, I focus on the relationship between mind and body with patients who are struggling with emotional disorders ranging from anxiety, depression, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Recent neuroscience research promotes novelty, enrichment, and exercise both mental and physical, which activates stem cells throughout the body. Anything that’s novel turns on your genes, fixes your attention, and gives you a certain emotion. That’s what Jung called the numinosum. This may be what is occurring during the experience of dance in promoting changes in the brain that regulate balance, gait, and decrease tremors. Recently, my mother’s Parkinson’s symptoms resulted in an episode of “freezing” her body, which scared her. She tells me now that she has to keep moving or one day she may just be stopped by the disease. Yet, for now, the movement of her body to music seems to work best in reducing her PD symptoms.
As a psychologist, dancer, and daughter, every time I dance with my mother, the research is confirmed. I see a decrease in her tremors, her gait improves, and she is able to turn when cued with complete balance. For the rest of the day, she smiles and shares how happy and energized she feels.
There is always a mind body connection while dancing. However, with Parkinson’s patients that connection is even more evident because outright PD symptoms – such as tremors, imbalance, and faltered gait – are alleviated while they are dancing. My mother’s body loses rigidity, her gait improves, her mood lifts, and there is no evidence of tremors. Given current evidence a dance program of ten weeks duration seems reasonable. As for frequency and duration of individual dance sessions, data remains too limited to draw concise conclusions.
The good news is that dance appears to meet many, if not all, of the recommended components for exercise programs designed for individuals with PD. While benefits can be obtained with a short, intensive dance intervention, longer interventions may prove to be even more effective. Much remains to be studied in several areas, including the mechanisms by which dance conveys benefit to those with PD and the long-term effectiveness of dance as therapy for this population. In the meantime, mild to moderate PD patients who dance can find freedom, balance, and become tremor free.
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