Latin Dance May Be a Step Toward Better Working Memory for Older Latinos

Summary: Latinos aged 55 and older who participated in Latin dance classes for eight months showed significant improvement in working memory over their peers who did not partake in Latin dance.

Source: University of Illinois

Dance is at the heart of Latin culture, celebrated for its social, historical and cultural significance. And new research suggests that older Latinos who regularly participate in it can help their brains stay healthy, too.

Latinos age 55 and over who participated in a culturally relevant Latin dance program for eight months significantly improved their working memory compared with peers in the control group who attended health education workshops, according to the study’s lead author, Susan Aguiñaga, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Working memory – 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.

The dance program used in the study, Balance and Activity in Latinos, Addressing Mobility in Older Adults – or BAILAMOS – showed promise at enticing older Latinos to become more physically active and help stave off age-related cognitive decline, Aguiñaga said.

“Dance can be cognitively challenging,” Aguiñaga said. “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.”

BAILAMOS was co-created by study co-author David X. Marquez, a professor of kinesiology and nutrition, and the director of the Exercise and Psychology Lab at the University of Illinois Chicago; and Miguel Mendez, the creator and owner of the Dance Academy for Salsa.

BAILAMOS incorporates four types of Latin dance styles: merengue, salsa, bachata and cha cha cha, said Aguiñaga, who has worked with the program since its inception when she was a graduate student at the U. of I. Chicago.

“It’s an appealing type of physical modality,” she said. “Older Latinos are drawn to Latin dance because most of them grew up with it in some way.”

Latin dance can evoke positive emotions that prompt listeners to participate, increasing levels of physical activity in a population that tends to be sedentary, according to the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

More than 330 Spanish-speaking Latino adults who were middle-aged or older were recruited for the study, primarily through community outreach in local churches. Participants were randomly assigned to either the dance group or the control group, which met once a week for two-hour health education classes that covered topics such as nutrition, diabetes and stress reduction.

Participants in the BAILAMOS groups met twice weekly for the dance sessions, taught by a professional instructor for the first four months and later by a “program champion” – an outstanding participant in each group who displayed enthusiasm and leadership qualities.

The program’s champions were selected and trained by the instructor to lead the sessions during the four-month maintenance phase.

Over the different waves of the four-year study, the dance lessons were held at 12 different locations across Chicago, such as neighborhood senior centers and churches that were familiar and easily accessible to participants, Aguiñaga said.

Participants’ working memory – along with their episodic memory and executive function – was assessed with a set of seven neuropsychological tests before the intervention began, when it concluded after four months and again at the end of the maintenance phase.

Participants also completed questionnaires that assessed the number of minutes per week they engaged in light, moderate and vigorous physical activity through tasks associated with their employment, leisure activities, household maintenance and other activities.

This shows an older couple dancing
Latinos age 55 and over who participated in a culturally relevant Latin dance program for eight months significantly improved their working memory compared with peers in the control group who attended health education workshops. The image is in the public domain

On average, participants were about 65 years old with body mass indices that placed them in the obese category. About 85% of the study participants were female.

As with a small pilot study of BAILAMOS conducted previously, the current study found no differences in any of the cognitive measures between the dance participants and their counterparts in the health education group at four months. However, after eight months, people in the dance group performed significantly better on tests that assessed their working memory.

“That’s probably one of the most important findings – we saw cognitive changes after eight months, where participants themselves had been leading the dance classes during the maintenance phase,” Aguiñaga said. “All of our previous studies were three or four months long. The take-home message here is we need longer programs to show effects.

“But to make these programs sustainable and create a culture of health, we also need to empower participants to conduct these activities themselves and make them their own.”

The study also was co-written by Dr. David Buchner, the Shahid and Anne Carlson Kahn Professor in Applied Health Sciences; and Edward McAuley, an emeritus professor of kinesiology and community health, both at the U. of I.’s Urbana campus.

Co-authors at the Chicago campus were Susan Hughes, a professor emerita of community health sciences; Michael Berbaum, the director of both the Methodology Research Core for the Institute for Health Research and Policy, and the Biostatistics Core of the Center for Clinical and Translational Science; and biostatistician Tianxiu Wang.

Other co-authors were health sciences professor Navin Kaushal, of Purdue University, Indianapolis; Guilherme M. Balbim, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of British Columbia; neurological sciences professor Robert S. Wilson and professor of nursing JoEllen E. Wilbur, both of Rush University; public health professor Priscilla M. Vásquez, of the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science; and Isabela G. Marques, of the CAPES Foundation in Brasilia, Brazil.

About this memory research news

Author: Sharita Forrest
Source: University of Illinois
Contact: Sharita Forrest – University of Illinois
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Latin Dance and Working Memory: The Mediating Effects of Physical Activity Among Middle-Aged and Older Latinos” by Susan Aguiñaga et al. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience


Latin Dance and Working Memory: The Mediating Effects of Physical Activity Among Middle-Aged and Older Latinos

Background: Physical activity (PA) is a promising method to improve cognition among middle-aged and older adults. Latinos are at high risk for cognitive decline and engaging in low levels of PA. Culturally relevant PA interventions for middle-aged and older Latinos are critically needed to reduce risk of cognitive decline. We examined changes in cognitive performance among middle-aged and older Latinos participating in the BAILAMOS™ dance program or a health education group and compared the mediating effects of PA between group assignment and change in cognitive domains.

Methods: Our 8-month randomized controlled trial tested BAILAMOS™, a 4-month Latin dance program followed by a 4-month maintenance phase. A total of 333 older Latinos aged 55+ were randomized to either BAILAMOS™, or to a health education control group. Neuropsychological tests were administered, scores were converted to z-scores, and specific domains (i.e., executive function, episodic memory, and working memory) were derived. Self-reported PA was assessed, and we reported categories of total PA, total leisure PA, and moderate-to-vigorous PA as minutes/week. A series of ANCOVAs tested changes in cognitive domains at 4 and 8 months. A mediation analysis tested the mediating effects of each PA category between group assignment and a significant change in cognition score.

Results: The ANCOVAs found significant improvement in working memory scores among participants in the dance group at month 8 [F(1,328) = 5.79, p = 0.017, d = 0.20], but not in executive functioning [F(2,328) = 0.229, p = 0.80, Cohen’s d = 0.07] or episodic memory [F(2,328) = 0.241, p = 0.78, Cohen’s d = 0.05]. Follow-up mediation models found that total PA mediated the relationship between group assignment and working memory, in favor of the dance group (β = 0.027, 95% CI [0.0000, 0.0705]). Similarly, total leisure PA was found to mediate this relationship [β = 0.035, 95% CI (0.0041, 0.0807)].

Conclusion: A 4-month Latin dance program followed by a 4-month maintenance phase improved working memory among middle-aged and older Latinos. Improvements in working memory were mediated by participation in leisure PA. Our results support the current literature that leisure time PA influences cognition and highlight the importance of culturally relevant PA modalities for Latinos.

Clinical Trial Registration: [], identifier [NCT01988233].

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.