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From merengue to salsa, dance and music are at the heart of the Latino community. Latin dance celebrates culture, history, family, and joyous occasions.
Now Latin dance is proving to help the working memory of older Latinos.
Latinos age 55 or older who participated in a culturally relevant Latin dance program for 8 months significantly improved their working memory, compared to other peers in a controlled group that attended educational workshops, according to a recent study by researchers from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Let’s explore why Latin dance is so beneficial.
What Did the Latin Dance Study Explore?
The recent study examined changes in cognitive performance among over 330 middle-aged and older Latinos participating in the Balance and Activity in Latinos, Addressing Mobility in Older Adults (BAILAMOS™) dance program or a control group.
The dance program incorporates four Latin dance styles: merengue, salsa, bachata and cha-cha.
“It’s an appealing type of physical modality,” said the study’s lead author, Susan Aguiñaga of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a press release. “Older Latinos are drawn to Latin dance because most of them grew up with it in some way.”
After joining, Aguiñaga and the research team randomly assigned participants to the BAILAMOS dance group or the control group. The control group met once a week for two-hour health education classes that covered topics such as nutrition, diabetes, and stress reduction.
The BAILAMOS group met twice weekly for dance sessions taught by a professional instructor for four months.
For another four-months, programs champions – an outstanding participant in each group who displayed “enthusiasm and leadership qualities” – were selected and trained by the instructor to lead dance sessions.
“Dance can be cognitively challenging,” Aguiñaga said, according to a press release. “When you’re learning new steps, you have to learn how to combine them into sequences. And as the lessons progress over time, you must recall the steps you learned in a previous class to add on additional movements.”
What Did the Latin Dance Study Find Out?
Participants completed questionnaires that assessed the number of minutes per week they engaged in light, moderate and vigorous physical activity through various tasks associated with factors like employment, leisure activities, and household maintenance.
Researchers also assessed participants’ working memory, episodic memory, and executive function using seven neuropsychological tests.
Aguiñaga and her team then compared the impact of physical activity between groups and changes in cognitive areas.
After eight months, Latinos in the dance group performed significantly better on tests that assessed their working memory.
“Our results support the current literature that leisure time [physical activity] influences cognition and highlight the importance of culturally relevant [physical activity] modalities for Latinos,” the study concluded.
What Defines Working Memory?
Working memory is “the ability to temporarily keep a small amount of information in mind while performing other cognitive tasks – is integral to planning, organizing and decision-making in everyday life,” according to the press release about the dance study.
An example of working memory would be listening to a story, then having the ability to retell the story after.
Dementia and other neurocognitive can deeply impact working memory.
Alzheimer’s, for example, reduces working memory by impacting semantic memory, according to Very Well Health.
“Semantic memory is the ability to understand and recognize words,” according to the report. “Since language processing may be slower in Alzheimer’s, working memory (which uses our stored memories) may also be impaired.”
The Latin dance study mentions that while the program did improve working memory, it did not improve executive functioning or episodic memory.
Executive functioning is “a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation.”
Executive functioning skills include factors like planning, problem solving, and decision making.
Dementia can impact executive function through poor judgment, disorganization and socially inappropriate behavior.
Episodic memory is “a form of long-term memory that captures the details of past events that one has personally experienced. Along with semantic memory, it is considered a kind of explicit memory, because a person is consciously aware of the details that are reproduced.”
Everyday events like memories of big family vacation or the first time you met your spouse are examples of episodic memories.
While a decline in episodic memory is a general part of aging, a 2018 study shows that it also identifies as one of the strongest predictors of dementia.
This is important for Latinos, who are at 1.5-times higher risk of developing dementia, likely a reflection of historical and present-day systemic racism and social inequities that affect brain health, according to a Salud America! report.
We Need More Latinos to Volunteer for Clinical Trials
This study on Latin dance is an example of how a clinical trial can help Latinos.
Clinical trials help researchers learn more to help slow, manage, and treat diseases and health issues like Alzheimer’s and other neurocognitive disorders. Dr. Amelie Ramirez, director of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio, is creating new ways for Latinos to volunteer for clinical trials thanks to a grant from Genentech, a member of the Roche Group.
On her Salud America! website, Ramirez is showcasing open clinical trials. Ramirez is also leading awareness-raising social media events, webinars, and uplifting the stories of Latino clinical trial participants, like Alma Lopez.
“With more Latino volunteers for clinical trials, researchers would have greater opportunity to find better prevention and treatments for diseases that affect this population,” Ramirez said.
Visit the Salud America! clinical trials page to learn more about volunteer opportunities and how you and your familia can participate.