Exercises that combine music and rhythmic movement may help curb the rate of falls among older adults at increased risk, a study suggests.
Swiss researchers found that a form of music/movement education known as Dalcroze eurhythmics seemed to improve balance and walking ability among 134 older adults with balance problems or a history of falls.
Balance and gait improves
Moreover, those improvements translated into fewer falls by participants during the six-month series of classes.
The findings, reported n the Archives of Internal Medicine, suggest that the classes and possibly other music-based forms of movement as well could be helpful to seniors with balance and gait problems.
Dalcroze eurhythmics was developed in the early part of the 20th century by the Swiss composer Emile Jaques-Dalcroze as a way to better understand music through movement. Classes in the method are available worldwide.
A class typically involves improvised piano music, with participants adapting their movements to the music's rhythmic changes. In the current study, the classes started off simply by having participants walk in time to the music.
Then gradually became more challenging over time. Besides footwork, participants sometimes had to perform upper-body movements or work with some object, like a percussion instrument or a ball, while moving.
It's that type of multi-tasking that may help explain subjects' improved balance and gait and lessened fall risk, according to lead researcher Dr. Andrea Trombetti of the University Hospitals and Faculty of Medicine of Geneva.
He noted that the classes share some features with other "multi-component, attention-demanding" types of exercise like tai chi. Some studies have found that tai chi an ancient Chinese art that involves slow, fluid movements combined with mental imagery and deep breathing may help reduce older adults' fall risk.
For the current study, Dr Trombetti's team randomly assigned the 134 participants into two groups: one that took a one-hour weekly Dalcroze class for six months; and a "delayed-intervention" group that spent the first six months of the study maintaining their normal activities, and then took the Dalcroze class for the remaining six months.
After the first six months, the eurhythmics group showed greater improvements in tests of balance and walking compared with the delayed-intervention group. They were also half as likely as the control group to have suffered a fall; there were 24 falls in the intervention group (0.7 falls per person per year), versus 54 in the delayed-intervention group (1.6 falls per person per year).
During the second half of the study, participants in the delayed-intervention group showed similar reductions in their fall risk versus their own first six months.
As for the long-term effects, people who took the classes in the first half of the study were still showing improved balance and walking ability six months after the classes ended, according to Trombetti and his colleagues.
Benefits for older adults
Trombetti said the findings raise the possibility that social dancing or other activities that challenge balance and require continuous adjustments to the environment like trying to stay in step with musical rhythm could also have benefits for older adults.
"This remains to be fully explored in large randomised controlled trials," Trombetti said.
Dr William Hall, director of the Centre for Healthy Aging at the University of Rochester Medical Centre/Highland Hospital in Rochester, New York, who was not involved in the current study, speculated there may be something particularly beneficial about music-based movement, which simultaneously engages a person's muscles and also the cognitive processes of the brain, with a potential reinforcing effect.
He said he already recommends ballroom-dance classes as a good form of physical activity for older adults. Part of the reasoning for that is that ballroom dance combines movement, music and socialisation.
"It's very important for older adults to have some type of exercise program," Hall said, "but it's also tough for them to stick with it. One of the biggest inducements is if (the activity) involves some sort of socialisation."
(Reuters Health, Amy Norton, November 2010)