What Does Research Say About the Benefits of Dance for Parkinson's Disease?
Parkinson's disease (PD) is a movement disorder, meaning that it affects motor function. There is a wealth of research from the past few years suggesting that dance offers significant benefits for people with Parkinson's disease. What's exciting is that the benefits seem to go beyond just improving motor function. In this post, I'll take a closer look at some of those studies and what they have found.
Differences between clinical research & anecdotal reports
When looking for evidence that a therapy is or is not beneficial for a health problem, it is important to understand the difference between clinically-based research and anecdotal stories or reports.
Statistics can be massaged and research can be interpreted in various ways, often reflecting the biases of the researchers involved. So, it is important for valid clinical studies to be what is called "peer-reviewed." Peer review is defined as “a process of subjecting an author’s scholarly work, research or ideas to the scrutiny of others who are experts in the same field.”.1 It is meant to encourage researchers to adhere to accepted standards and to discourage unwarranted claims, unacceptable interpretations, or personal views.
Clinically-based research should answer meaningful questions and draw accurate conclusions based on valid experiments. Other components of this type of research that lend to more valid conclusions include:
- Scope. Studies including only a few people or a short period of time may or may not be applicable to the larger population. The results are generally not as meaningful.
- Diversity of the participants. Likewise, even if the sample size is larger, when the participants all fall into one or two groups, the results may not be as applicable. For example, the results of a study whose participants are all females between the ages of 40 and 60 might or might not be valid for males or for anyone over the age of 60.
- Comparison between therapies. The most valid studies will have a control group that does not use the therapy to compare against those who do use the therapy. The participants are not necessarily told which group they are in. There is something known as the "placebo effect," where participants experience a positive result simply because they expect to have it.
On the other hand, anecdotal reports are when a person or a group of people describe benefits from a therapy or activity that have not been tested in any controlled clinical fashion. While there can be value in an individual's experience of this type, it may or may not be valid for anyone else.
Research about dance and PD
The good news is that while there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that dance is beneficial for PD, there has also been a lot of clinical research done along those lines in the past decade!
The Dance for PD website lists no less than 15 peer-reviewed studies that show dance has many positive benefits for people with Parkinson's disease. Most of these studies were limited to a relatively small number of participants (under 20), so that may limit their validity somewhat. A couple of them were not all that well-controlled. Still, the consistently positive results have led to other, possibly more relevant, studies.
Two of the studies on the Dance for PD website included a systematic review of multiple past studies.
What is a systematic review of past studies?
Two different groups of researchers completed a systematic review of clinical study databases to evaluate findings on dance and PD.
- walking performance
- quality of life
- disease severity
After their reviews, both groups concluded that dancing was beneficial for:
- motor performance
- quality of life
- persistence with regular exercise
They also noted some short-term improvements in freezing of gait, walking performance, and well-being. They felt that the research they examined left a lot of unanswered questions and participant sample sizes were all small. Some of the assessment tools used by previous researchers were also somewhat questionable. However, they did conclude that dance appears to be feasible, safe, and enjoyable for mild to moderately severe PD. They also found that dance-related exercise is possibly more likely to result in greater adherence, compliance, and enjoyment as compared to other types of exercise.
Recent research on dance and Parkinson's
Experts note that more than 100 articles have been posted in clinical journals over the past 10 years regarding the benefits of dance for Parkinson's disease.
- Contemporary dance
- Irish step dancing
- Contact improvisation
- Ballroom dancing
- Argentine tango
- Zumba Fitness®
All of the studies show benefits for at least some people with Parkinson's. One 2018 study looked beyond the most commonly studied motor benefits. A team led by researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois aimed to prove that dance as a "psychotherapeutic use of movement" might have positive effects not only on the physical arena, but also on areas of emotional, cognitive, and social integration and well-being:5
- 13 participants with PD were randomly assigned to dance therapy or a control support group
- All participants in dance therapy enjoyed the classes and most felt they were beneficial in some way
- Dance as a psychotherapy was a feasible, enjoyable, mind-body approach
- Further study with groups matched for disease severity was recommended
Experts do not fully understand why dance is beneficial for people with PD. These researchers wrote, "Dance may be effective in targeting motor symptoms of Parkinson’s disease because it incorporates the stretching and strengthening of muscles, and increases flexibility throughout the body, which may help maintain balance in people with Parkinson’s."6
They also theorized the possibility that "the practice of dance may activate areas of the brain that normally show reduced activation in Parkinson’s."
However, the study was limited due to the small number of participants.
Research to date is extremely encouraging about the positive benefits of dance for people who suffer from Parkinson's disease. Unfortunately, many of the studies done so far have been extremely limited in scope. Their scientific approach has also been lacking in some instances. Hopefully, additional studies using larger patient populations over longer periods of time will be done to further explore the potential of dance therapy.
But for now, there is certainly no harm in trying a dance class, as long as you have your doctor's approval. If you can, find one specifically geared to people with PD. You never know; you just might find that enjoy it and that you feel better for having tried it!
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