Hey Naani-Ma, Put On Your Dancing Shoes. It’s Good For Your Brain!

Kanti Patel and Jaya Mehta celebrating Independence Day at ICC (Image provided by ICC-Milpitas)
Kanti Patel and Jaya Mehta celebrating Independence Day at ICC (Image provided by ICC-Milpitas)

In a packed hall on one Sunday evening at the India Community Center-Milpitas here in the heart of Silicon Valley, South Asian folks of all ages sit in their traditional outfits and wildly cheer the naanis and naanas on the stage as they do an energetic “Jollywood” dance number to the song, Dus Bahane.

Naani-ma Pushpanjali Gangishetti, 74, in a bright sari, matching jewelry and barefooted, shakes her hips with gusto, one arm bent seductively behind her head, the other extended in the air in front of her, a broad smile on her face. 

She clearly looked like she was enjoying the spotlight provided at the India Community Center’s (ICC) annual fund-raising gala. Ditto for at least a dozen other seniors who shared the stage with her, the men wearing fancy kurta-pyjamas, the women in sequined outfits, which anyone could see were tailored for the young at heart.

To an onlooker, it’s obvious why they call themselves the “Jollywood dancers.”

“I never thought that slipping into our dancing shoes and moving our legs would bring about such a change in us,” said 78-year-old Kanti Patel on a recent day, recalling that evening, as well as the continuing weekly dance sessions at the ICC. 

He said he and his wife, Champa, have been taking full advantage of all the cultural activities the ICC offers seniors – singing, dancing, mono acting, doing yoga, aerobics, playing bridge, or simply shooting the breeze with their peers. “What we do here are wonderful stress busters.”

Indeed, it has been long documented that physical activity, especially dancing and singing, can positively affect elderly people’s bodies and minds, leading to better cardiovascular health, fewer migraine headaches, and a sharper brain.

“Music and dance create new networks in the brain,” explained India-born neurologist Dr. Joe Verghese, lead author of a continuing study on aging at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. 

The study explored how dance and music slowed down cognitive decline in older people. It found that dancing helps prevent both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, the next most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s. 

Turns out, “all activities related to music can be beneficial to people,” noted Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP’s Senior Vice President for Policy and Brain Health, and Executive Director of the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). Engaging in music “is a powerful way to stimulate your brain.”

Lock, a panelist at the 2020 Gerontological Society of America’s (GSA) Annual Scientific Meeting last November, shared those findings with 15 journalists who had won fellowships from GSA’s 2020 Journalist Network on Aging program. 

The meeting was held online because of the COVID pandemic.

She cited recent findings by the GCBH that showed that music impacts all regions of the brain and causes them to work together. It releases dopamine, an important brain chemical that influences one’s mood and feelings of reward and motivation. And the music that’s “meaningful to the individual is likely to have a greater dopamine response,” she said. 

Lock said 20 to 40 percent of dementia could be reduced or delayed through changing modifiable lifestyle factors. Music can encourage healthy behaviors that can reduce your risk of dementia. So what kind of music should seniors, who had perhaps previously largely limited themselves to bathroom singing, or not sung at all, engage in?

“It’s all about individual choices and preferences,” Lock said, noting, “Any style or type of music can be beneficial for the brain.”

According to the GCBH report, there is evidence to suggest that music that is meaningful to the individual is likely to cause the strongest brain response and dopamine release, while at the same time new music can stimulate the brain and provide a new source of pleasure.

A 90-year-old woman (whose family did not want her to be identified) stricken with dementia had started showing little interest in her surroundings and sometimes even in family members who visited her. But whenever she heard her favorite songs of yesteryears, she would quickly brighten up, said a relative.

People who use music to connect with people understand why that medium is so important for people like this woman. Linda McNair, a board-certified music therapist at a senior facility in Missouri, is quoted as saying that when people with dementia engage with music, “they don’t dwell on other anxieties.”

Of the 11 different physical activities the Einstein team studied, social dance was the only one associated with less dementia risk – possibly because it is a complex activity. It demands sustained mental effort to master new steps. 

That meant, it is not a one-and-done thing. “It has to be ongoing therapy,” Lock said.

Among the people who participated in the Einstein aging study, those who danced frequently – three or four times a week– showed 76 percent less incidence of dementia than those who danced only once a week.

Many people who dread exercising are more likely to use dancing as a way of overall physical improvement. While most exercises tend to use repetitive motions that may be found boring, dancing uses a wide variety of movements and has the additional advantage of social interaction with different people, Verghese said. As a result, it can provide greater self-confidence and self-esteem, enhance a general sense of wellbeing, and lead to more active social relationships.

Verghese, who is in his 50s, confessed he’s no fan of exercise, perhaps because of its repetitive motions.  Ballroom dancing, on the other hand, with its wide variety of movements, is something he has embraced. It has helped his overall physical wellbeing, he said. 

Music beneficial for Parkinson’s Disease

Neurologists say that music and dance can benefit the gait and balance of people with Parkinson’s disease and slow its march, possibly because they stimulate the production of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are reduced in people with the disease. Singing uses the same muscle groups for swallowing and breathing, functions that are impacted as the disease advances.

After being diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s a couple of years ago, a middle-aged techie in the Silicon Valley, who wished to remain anonymous, has become even more serious about learning Carnatic music, with its high-speed variations of pitch, unity of raga and tala, all of which he believes have helped slow down the advancement of the disease. 

Verghese said the social and emotional elements of dancing and music are especially beneficial for Indian American seniors, particularly those who have migrated to the United States in their later years. For many of them, cultural and language barriers, as well as lack of mobility, have limited their social interactions in their adoptive countries. 

 

Earlier Indian festival celebrations at ICC-West Valley: People from left to right - Smita Sane (Orange), Sumitra Kapoor (Blue Sari), Romila Ghai (Red and Blue), Swatantra Dhawan (Yellow)
Earlier Indian festival celebrations at ICC-West Valley: People from left to right – Smita Sane (Orange), Sumitra Kapoor (Blue Sari), Romila Ghai (Red and Blue), Swatantra Dhawan (Yellow); (Image provided by ICC)

 

That does not mean that while living in India they all had the mental stimulation older people need to keep their brains from cognitive decline, noted Sunitha Ramakrishnan, who manages the senior programs at the Mid-Peninsula chapter of the ICC. 

“There is no way older people in India could do all the activities they so freely do here” without inviting criticism from their friends and family members, said Ramakrishnan, adding, “Singing perhaps yes, but dancing no.”

Shakuntala Saini, a widow of eight years, echoed this view. “In India, if I said I’m 78, people will simply say, ‘It’s time for you to go.’ ”

The ICC has a total of 600 senior members in its four centers – located in Milpitas, Cupertino, Mid-Peninsula, and Tri-Valley. The average age of the members is 70. Some drive themselves to the centers, others get dropped off at the center by family members, and some others use county-funded car services for a nominal cost of $2 per ride. 

The COVID lockdown has not stopped them from accessing the social activities they enjoyed prior to the stay-at-home orders, noted ICC’s chief executive officer Raj Desai. As the lockdown began, ICC volunteers gave them a Zoom 101 course and they were off and running.

“In fact, there is more attendance in the classes now” than before the lockdown, noted Ramakrishnan.

On a recent day, Sunaina Jain, in her late 60s, was at a Zoom practice session with 27 other seniors at the class taught by Bollywood dance teacher Neetu Arora of the Mona Khan Dance Company.

“Come on Sunaina Aunty, arms down, hip-hip,” Arora coaxes, demonstrating what needed to be done. In Bollywood dance, she tells the students, “arm angles are really important.”

It’s Christmas Eve at the ICC and once again the stage is awash with colorful lehenga-cholis, salwar kameezes, and saris. The seniors are strutting their stuff through music and dance. 

All of them hid the little aches and pains that come with advancing years. There was Indu Chabbra, 70, a widow and legally blind, doing her thing in a lehenga-choli. 

Gangishetti, a widow of two years, is determined not to let her artificial knees keep her from having a blast. 

“They tell me that dancing has given them a sense of accomplishment and built up their confidence,” said Ishika Seth, who is a professional dancer from the Mona Khan Dance Company and has been volunteering at the ICC for the last 10 years.


Viji Sundaram wrote this article for India Currents with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations, and the Silver Century Foundation


 

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