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Study to test benefits of dance for Latin seniors

Experts say traditional activity could overcome cultural barriers to exercise

By Janice Neumann, Special to the Tribune

March 6, 2013

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A group of Latino seniors soon will be stepping out on the dance floor in the name of medical research.

A study being coordinated by a University of Illinois at Chicago professor will see if doing traditional dances such as salsa and cha-cha-cha can spark more physical activity in older Latinos and improve their health.

Although doctors have long known exercise is important for staving off chronic disease, researchers of the dance study contend many older Latinos won't buy into just any physical activity, often for cultural reasons. Experts also say older Latinos often are at a high risk for developing disabilities.

"Exercising is just not a very familiar concept, but when you look at dancing, it's family parties, going out as young adults … this is just something they have done and it's a part of their culture," said David Marquez, UIC associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition.

The study will follow 166 Latinos age 65-74 for four months in twice-weekly dance classes at nine local senior centers, community centers and park buildings, and the same number in a control group.

Several of the seniors will then be trained as instructors to lead the program for four more months to determine if participants — who will be evaluated for balance, mobility and cognitive improvement — will keep up with the dancing. A $1.7 million National Institutes of Health grant is funding the study.

Marquez and Miguel Mendez, owner of Dance Academy of Salsa in Chicago, developed a four-stage program, called Bailamos, which includes merengue, cha-cha-cha, bachata and salsa. Bailamos means "we dance" in Spanish.

Mendez said the two wanted to use the popular dances as a form of therapy for the seniors, teaching basic but progressively more difficult steps they could follow without feeling pressured.

"How do you get people to move around?" asked Marquez. "Having something people are interested in and really enjoy, we hypothesize that will get people to come to the dance classes," he said.

Kyriakos Markides, an expert on aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and a consultant on this study, noted that Latinos have significant health problems. Although they tend to live about two years longer than whites, they are at greater risk for diabetes, obesity, depression, cognitive impairment and disability, he noted. Causes could include poverty, lack of health insurance, physically demanding jobs and isolation as they age. Studies have also shown the population tends to be more inactive.

"If you can get people to do it, it's got to be beneficial both physically and emotionally," said Markides, Annie & John Gnitzinger distinguished professor of aging studies at the university. "We know physical and social activity are important for quality of life but they're also important in slowing down the negative effects of diseases like diabetes."

Centers for Disease Control statistics show that Latinos are the largest and fastest-growing minority in the country nation. In 2010, 13 percent of the country's population was 65 or older, and Latinos made up 7.1 percent of this age group. Census 2010 data for Cook County showed that 9.2 percent of the elderly population is Latino. The life expectancy for Latinos is 80.6 years and for whites 78.1.

Dr. Patricia Grady, director of the National Institute of Nursing Research at NIH, noted the importance of studies that could help decrease illness and improve quality of life.

"The Bailamos program is an innovative and culturally appropriate intervention intended to increase physical activity among Latino seniors," noted Grady. "Research has shown that there are multiple health benefits of physical activity for older adults."

Aida Giachello, professor, Feinberg School of Medicine's department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, who is not involved in the study, said the research is important and timely because of the growing Latino population and its economic and health disparities.

"This is very significant because once the evaluation results are completed, this model can be transferred and adopted in nursing homes or community programs," said Giachello. "I think what Dr. Marquez is doing is commendable and has a tremendous amount of potential to reach out to the elderly."