According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Latinos are about one-and-a-half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than their non-Latino white counterparts. And in fact, new research suggests that Mexican Americans – the country’s largest population of Latinos – develop risk factors that could lead to Alzheimer’s as early as a decade sooner than others. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are of particular concern.

With that in mind, a group in Illinois is on a mission to get the Latino population in better shape; not just for their hearts, but for their brains as well.

What’s their plan of attack? Dance.

In senior communities across Chicago, older Latinos are cutting the rug. From danzón to salsa, the dances are part of the Latino Alzheimer’s & Memory Disorders Alliance (LAMDA) dance program. “Bailando por la Salud” (Dancing for Health) was designed to get Latinos who don’t exercise up and moving in an effort to minimize the risk factors that lead to Alzheimer’s.

“If we can prevent some of those risk factors by educating the community about a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle, then that is progress,” said Constantina Mizis, LAMDA’s Executive Director.

“But it’s not just enough to tell people that they need to have a healthy diet and have an active lifestyle," Mizis said. "We also have to look at how it works for our culture ... We have to do what makes them comfortable, or they won’t do it.”

Physical activity is thought to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's’s by as much as 50 percent; and one study found that frequent dancing reduced the risk of developing dementia by a whopping 76 percent, more so than any other physical or cognitive activity. In addition, dance adds a social and community element as well.

“People come here to dance and they are also getting their exercise in a way that they feel is culturally relevant to them. They feel good, and they interact with each other,” said Mizis.

Juan Manuel Martínez, 74, was initially led to the LAMDA dances after having taken care of his mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s for a decade. Now he and his wife have become LAMDA danzón instructors.

"I don’t have any symptoms but I wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to stay physically and mentally fit, just in case," Martínez said.

“Danzón is an elegant way of keeping fit both physically and mentally," he added. "We get together and interact. We have fun. We exercise."

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