Learning to Salsa Boosts Seniors' Brain Health

Megan Brooks

July 29, 2021

DENVER — Learning and practicing salsa dancing and the cha-cha-cha may boost brain health in older adults, new research suggests.

In the BAILA randomized controlled trial, which included more than 300 older participants, those who participated in a Latin dance-training program showed significant improvement in their working memory and mobility — and had fun to boot.

Dancing poses a "high demand" on attention and memory, and the process of recalling steps and learning new dance steps may be the reason working memory improved, said study chief Susan Aguiñaga, PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Dancing also provides "coordination, balance, and proprioceptive training," which may help explain the improvement in mobility and walking speed, Aguiñaga noted.

Findings from the BAILA trial were presented here at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2021.

"We Dance"

The trial tested whether a 4-month Latin dance program, followed by a 4-month dance maintenance program, could elicit positive changes on cognition and mobility in 333 older Latinx individuals.

A total of 167 participants (mean age, 64; 141 women) were randomly assigned to the Bailamos Latin dance intervention and 166 (mean age, 66; 140 women) to a control group who received health education only. 

Bailamos, which in Spanish means "we dance," teaches merengue, cha-cha-cha, bachata, and salsa. The 60-minute dance classes were held twice weekly.

As part of the program, participants initially learned four dance styles. During the maintenance program, four additional moves were added to each dance style, so participants were able to practice their new skills.

All participants completed neuropsychological tests that assessed working memory, executive function, and episodic memory. They also completed a 400-meter walk test at baseline, 4 months, and 8 months post-intervention.

Results showed that at 8 months (but not 4 months), the dancers had a significant improvement in the domain of working memory compared with the control group (P = .017).  

There was a similar pattern for the 400-meter walk test — with no significant difference at 4 months, but a faster walking time at 8 months in the dance group (P = .013).  

Targets Multiple Pathways

"Older Latinos engage in low levels of physical activity, putting them at high risk for mobility disability and cognitive impairment," so programs that engage this population in culturally responsive physical activity are needed, Aguiñaga said.

Dancing is a "unique physical activity that embeds aerobic and neuromotor physical activity," she added.

Session co-chair Teresa Liu-Ambrose, PhD, PT, Center for Brain Health, University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, said the "beauty of physical activity" is that it targets multiple pathways, including inflammatory growth factors, and improves general cardiovascular health and potentially sleep as well.

"It is not just about targeting one pathway, but multiple pathways that then synergistically work together to promote better brain health or cognitive trajectory," Liu-Ambrose told meeting delegates.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Nursing Research. Aguiñaga and Liu-Ambrose have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2021: Abstract 56299. Presented July 26, 2021.

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