Is Irish musical activity keeping degenerative diseases at bay?

Italian doctor uses Irish dancing for rehabilitation of patients with Parkinson’s

Irish dancing is being used as part of one Italian doctor’s Parkinson’s rehabilitation exercises. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

Irish dancing is being used as part of one Italian doctor’s Parkinson’s rehabilitation exercises. File photograph: Cyril Byrne


A fondness for learning a musical instrument may be helping to keep Irish people’s rates of dementia and Parkinson’s low relative to other countries, according to an Italian neurologist who uses Irish dancing as therapy for his patients.

Hundreds of Dr Daniel Volpe’s patients across northern Italy are learning how to dance to reels and jigs as a form of rehabilitation for Parkinson’s.

Now he is beginning a study comparing Ireland’s high level of musical activity with the lower levels found in Italy to see if playing an instrument can prevent or delay degenerative diseases of the brain.

“Preliminary data shows music is able to activate many areas of the brain. It seems musicians have better cognitive functions and dexterity,” says Dr Volpe, a musician himself and a fan of Irish trad.

“In Ireland, one of the first things you do is to teach a child how to play music, whereas in Italy we don’t dedicate as much time to instrument learning. As a result, we expect the study to verify lower levels of dementia and Parkinson’s compared to Italy.”

Dr Volpe, the director of the Parkinson’s centre at NYU’s Fresco Institute in Vicenza, has been using Irish dancing as a form of rehabilitation for his patients for some years.

It was during a pub session in east Co Clare in 2010 that he noticed how a man with Parkinson’s, whose gait was impaired, was able to dance the Reel step without difficulty.

He noticed that Irish set dance requires dancers to change direction frequently, while maintaining step length. The music’s strong beat works deeply on the brain, allowing it to activate intact neural networks. “In this way, it is possible to overcome the freezing of gait that occurs with Parkinson’s, and falls,” he said.

“Patients need effective, enjoyable and sustainable methods of exercising in order to optimise their quality of life, and Irish music gives them that. It seems to improve mobility, balance and gait impairments, and it’s fun.”

Because it is enjoyable, patients are more likely to adhere to their exercise regime than if they were walking on a treadmill, and so the outcome compared to conventional physiotherapy is fewer falls, he says.

Dr Volpe, who is presenting his findings at the Future Health Summit in Dublin this week, says music can stimulate the plasticity of the brain and dancing improves mobility among patients. “I have tried tango, salsa, jazz, blues and classical. All music works, but Irish music is best at improving gait.”

Reels work best, jigs are less effective and polkas are “okay”, he adds.