Jere and Lee Reaves met on a dance floor in Cincinnati, Ohio. It seems only fitting that one of Jere’s treatments for her Parkinson’s disease is taking place on familiar territory.
Jere and Lee participate in tango classes at least twice a week, led by Madeleine Hackney, PhD, Emory researcher and research scientist at the Center for Visual and Neurocognitive Rehabilitation at the Atlanta VA. Dr. Hackney, a former professional tango dancer, believes that tango can — and does — help improve the quality of life for individuals with Parkinson’s.
“It’s not about people being patients in a room,” Dr. Hackney says. “It’s just about people being together and enjoying something together.”
The benefits of tango for individuals with Parkinson’s go far beyond a feel-good connection. In order to understand how dance can help with a neurodegenerative disorder, it’s important to understand the disease itself.
Understanding Parkinson’s Disease
Anyone affected by Parkinson’s — whether directly or through a loved one — knows all too well the symptoms and challenges it can present. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder, which means it worsens over time. It primarily affects areas of the brain that produce dopamine. One of dopamine’s many jobs is helping to regulate the brain processes that control movement. Abnormal dopamine levels can lead to shaking, stiffness and difficulty with walking, balance and coordination.
It was the shaking that Jere first noticed. It started with a small tremor in her pinky finger — a symptom that would eventually lead to her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
Because individuals with Parkinson’s have lower levels of dopamine, which in turn impact movement and coordination, treatments focus on replacing dopamine in the brain.
“Nearly all the treatments we have are for the replacement of dopamine in the brain,” explains Stewart Factor, DO, director of the Movement Disorders Program at Emory Brain Health Center. “It’s defined by motor symptoms — tremor, stiffness, slowness and walking and balance problems.”
For Jere, that means it’s getting harder to do things like hold her paintbrush, but she still manages to enjoy her favorite activity. While she may be moving more slowly and deliberately, she can also still get out on the dance floor to tango.
Tango and Parkinson’s Disease
Research is new, but several studies point to the possibility that dance is an effective form of rehabilitation for individuals with neurological conditions. As a former dancer, Dr. Hackney was drawn to the idea that a dance she loved — tango — could offer a positive impact for people.
“Dance itself is a form of cognitive rehabilitation,” Dr. Hackney explains. “People dance and, especially in the tango, they have to use their brains in a very, very particular way. They have to remember things. They have to understand timing. They have to put a movement to music.”
So far, results are promising. In Dr. Hackney’s research, she has found that after tango classes, individuals with Parkinson’s were able to:
- Walk farther, faster and longer
- Motor exams showed improved balance
Dr. Hackney found similar results in her first study, completed more than 12 years ago.
“We looked at 20 hours of tango over a 12-week period compared to 20 hours of chair exercise class, which is the traditional exercise class offered at the time,” she says. “It proved that it improved balance and gait parameter better than traditional exercise.”
Those findings mean a lot more to Jere.
“I’ve noticed a difference,” states Jere. “It helps me organize my movement better. The steps for tango you make, you have to switch your thinking.”
As for Lee, he’s just happy to keep dancing with his wife in his arms.
About Your Fantastic Mind
Emory University and the Emory Brain Health Center have partnered with Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) on a television series, Your Fantastic Mind, which features compelling stories about brain-related health and wellness.
Your Fantastic Mind began airing Season 2 in September 2020 on GPB’s statewide television network. The Emmy-winning news magazine-style show highlights patient stories and reports on cutting-edge science and clinical advances in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, sleep medicine and rehabilitation medicine.
For a complete listing of Season 2 episode air dates and times, visit emoryhealthcare.org/yfm.
Season 1 of Your Fantastic Mind examined topics including sleep apnea, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, PTSD, Huntington’s disease, migraines and video gaming disorder, which has been designated a mental health disorder by the World Health Organization.
Jaye Watson is the show’s host, writer and executive producer. She is an Emmy- and Edward R. Murrow award-winning veteran Atlanta journalist and video producer for the Emory Brain Health Center.
Emory Brain Health Center
The Emory Brain Health Center uniquely integrates neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, rehabilitation medicine and sleep medicine and transforms patient-centered care for brain and spinal cord conditions through research and discovery.
Bringing these specialties together allows more than 400 researchers and clinicians from different areas to collaborate to predict, prevent, treat or cure devastating diseases and disorders of the brain more rapidly. These collaborations are demonstrated in numerous centers and programs across the Brain Health Center, including the Epilepsy Center, Pituitary Center, Stroke Center, Treatment-Resistant Depression Program and Veterans Program.
Emory’s multidisciplinary approach is transforming the world’s understanding of the vast frontiers of the brain, harnessing imagination and discovery to address 21st century challenges.
Learn more about comprehensive, diagnostic and innovative treatment options at the Emory Brain Health Center.