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Dancing to music may halt progression of Parkinson’s disease

The results of a new study suggest that dancing to music can halt the progression of physical and psychological symptoms of Parkinson’s.

Annie Lennon, Medical News Today, Jul 13, 2021

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a brain disorder that affects movement. Its symptoms usually begin gradually and get worse over time.

People may experience shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with walking, balance, and coordination in the initial stages of PD. As the condition progresses, individuals might also experience trouble with speech, memory, and fatigue.

Previous research has suggested that dance classes may improve walking speed, balance, and movement in those with PD. However, most of these studies happened over short periods and did not include widely-used tools to diagnose the condition, such as the ​​Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale (UPDRS).

Knowing how dance classes affect PD over long periods could allow researchers to create long-term rehabilitation programs that help people manage symptoms of the condition.

Recently, researchers from York University in Canada conducted a study to see how weekly dance practice affects motor and nonmotor symptoms of PD in the long term.

“Generally, what we know is that dance activates brain areas in those without PD. For those with Parkinson’s disease, even when it is mild, motor impairment can impact their daily functioning and how they feel about themselves,” explains senior author of the paper, Dr. Joseph DeSouza.

“Many of these motor symptoms lead to isolation because once they get extreme, these people do not want to go out. These motor symptoms lead to further psychological issues, depression, social isolation, and eventually, the symptoms do get worse over time. Our study shows that training with dance and music can slow this down and improve their daily living and daily function,” he adds.

The researchers have published their findings in Brain Sciences.

Weekly dance classes

The scientists recruited 16 people with an average age of 69 years in Toronto, Ontario, who had mild cases of PD. Participants attended weekly dance classes lasting 1.25 hours each for 3 years between 2014 and 2017.

The dance exercises included aerobic and anaerobic movements from different dance styles, including modern, ballet, tap, folk, and social dancing.

Aerobic exercise involves movement that increases the heart rate for a sustained time, such as running or cycling. In contrast, anaerobic exercises focus on fast, intense bursts of energy over a short period - examples include jumping and heavy weight lifting.

The scientists also tracked 16 people who did not participate in dance classes from the Parkinson’s Progression Marker Initiative, a longitudinal research project that seeks to identify markers of PD. They matched each participant in this group to those in the dancing group by age, gender, PD symptom severity, and disease duration.

Throughout the study period, the scientists used UPDRS to assess participants’ psychological and motor symptoms and aspects of daily living, including speech, chewing, and swallowing.

The researchers measured the dance group’s motor skills before they began classes to establish a baseline. After the sessions began, they asked dance participants to fill in weekly surveys to evaluate motor and psychological aspects of daily living. They also assessed motor complications such as dyskinesia - involuntary, erratic movements in the face and body - and exercise levels.

Participants who took part in weekly dance classes saw significant improvements in speech, tremors, balance, and rigidity. Unlike those in the nondance group, both movement and psychological symptoms did not deteriorate over 3 years.

Motor deterioration is typically fastest in the first 5 years after a diagnosis of PD. The researchers further analyzed their data to understand how dance classes could affect motor deterioration within this timespan. They found that participants’ motor functions would likely remain more or less the same after 5 years of dance training.

Neuroprotective effects of exercise

To explain their results, the researchers say that dance training may have similar effects as high-intensity training workouts (HIIT). Research has shown that HIIT may increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in the blood, a protein that may have protective effects against PD neurodegeneration.

Other research suggests that dance activates parts of the brain that influence motor control. PD commonly damages these same areas, which may explain the improved motor symptoms among the participants.

Exercise programs lasting longer than 16 weeks have also been shown to reduce anxiety, perhaps accounting for some improvement in the dance group’s psychological symptoms.

The researchers added that the socialization, support, and group dynamics during the classes might have had a positive impact on psychological factors as well.

The scientists conclude that dancing with music may be beneficial as an add-on to existing treatment regimens for PD.

The results of this preliminary study will allow them to investigate whether researchers could use the same methods in future randomized control trials to create long-term rehabilitation strategies for people living with PD.

“Parkinson Canada is encouraged by these preliminary findings, as exercise and healthy activities are important for people with Parkinson’s,” Karen Lee, Ph.D., CEO of Parkinson Canada, who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today. “This study is part of a growing body of research that explores the link between the impact of activities and both motor and nonmotor symptoms of Parkinson’s.”

Christine M. Stahl, M.D., clinical assistant professor in the Division of Movement Disorders at NYU Langone Health and director of the post-doctoral fellowship program at the Fresco Institute for Parkinson’s and Movement Disorders, also spoke to MNT about the findings. She said:

“This study only included people with mild-to-moderate Parkinson’s disease, and therefore, conclusions apply only to those already diagnosed with Parkinson’s. These conclusions cannot be extrapolated to at-risk people. For [people with] Parkinson’s disease, however, these are very encouraging results for a nonpharmacologic treatment option to slow disease progression.”

Dr. Katherine Fletcher, Research Manager at Parkinson’s UK, added, “Many people with Parkinson’s tell us that exercise and physical activity can be just as important as medication for managing their symptoms.”

“There is currently limited research to support specific types of exercise being more beneficial than others for people with Parkinson’s, so we encourage individuals to explore what works best for them - there is no one-size-fits-all approach.”

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