It takes more than two to tango to study the benefits for people with Parkinson’s

It’s no surprise that when Dr. Silvia Rios Romenets released the results of her recent study on tango dancing as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease, the media eagerly picked up the story. After all, the Argentine tango has an emotional connotation with its sensual Latin rhythms and depictions on TV and in film.

More important than the feelings it inspires, the Argentine tango involves complex steps and requires “cognitive and multi-tasking skills to gradually integrate previously learned steps, as well as forward and backward movements and stopping and starting,” explains Rios Romenets, a behavioural neurologist and specialist in movement disorders conducting research at the Movement Disorders Clinic at The Neuro and Montreal General Hospital. “It has been used in previous studies to assess the ability of dance to improve motor symptoms in people with Parkinson’s.”

Dr. Rios Romenets’ study involved about 40 men and women, divided into two groups, and assessed both motor and non-motor symptoms. The control group followed their current exercise regime or if they were not already active, they were asked to follow Parkinson Society Canada’s recommended Exercises for people with Parkinson’s, at home, on their own. The other group participated in 24, one-hour, Argentine tango classes with their own partners (spouse, family member, friend or volunteer) and two instructors in a dance studio over 12 weeks. Participants in both groups underwent a series of motor and non-motor symptom assessments and completed questionnaires to determine the results.

“Although the core motor features of Parkinson’s disease such as tremor, slowness and rigidity were unchanged, we found an improvement in balance and possible modest improvements in cognition and fatigue in the tango-dancing group,” reports Dr. Rios Romenets. “Participants also found the tango classes highly enjoyable. Part of that pleasure may come from this positive bonding experience for couples who are more often dealing with the negative consequences of the disease.”

Overall, this study adds to the body of knowledge that indicates that regular exercise has both motor and non-motor benefits for people with Parkinson’s. “Adding music to the exercise mix, also appears to have additional benefits,” Rios Romenets. “In which case, learning the Argentine tango and regularly dancing can be a good option for physical activity for those with Parkinson’s.”

As a behavioural neurologist and specialist in movement disorders, Rios Romenets is drawn to research to ameliorate the suffering of people dealing with this complex disease, as well as help their families. “Working with patients with Parkinson’s can be frustratingly difficult, because you cannot offer a cure. On the other hand, helping these people and their families makes me more determined to continue my research into this difficult disease.”

In the 2011-2013 funding cycle, Dr. Rios Romenets was awarded a two-year, $100,000 clinical fellowship from Parkinson Society Canada’s National Research Program. She participated in five research projects, including the 2012 publication of the Physician Guide Non-motor Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, which has a companion piece for patients, A Guide to the Non-motor Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Dr. Rios Romenets felt very fortunate to be a PSC fellowship recipient and her recent tango study was also funded in part by PSC’s National Research Program and the Fonds de recherché santé Québec.

When she began to practice as a neurologist in Colombia, Rios Romenets worked towards combining her clinical practice with research. Describing herself as half-Russian, half-Peruvian, she learned English to improve her chances of pursuing research in her field. It’s no surprise that Rios Romenets also enjoys tango dancing in her free time and has participated in dance-related fundraising events.
In the future, Rios Romenets would be interested in doing a larger study of Argentine tango as a complementary therapy for Parkinson’s, over a longer time frame of six to 12 months. “I’d also be interested in focusing on the cognitive and other non-motor benefits of dancing,” she says. “And perhaps add neuro-imaging to the study.”

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