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Dancing a step to ward off Parkinson’s

A research study into the benefits of set dancing to Parkinson’s sufferers is being undertaken on the back of a chance encounter observed at the Feakle Traditional Music Festival by an Italian researcher and doctor.

Dr Daniele Volpe, a neurologist and an Irish folk music enthusiast who plays guitar attended the annual traditional music festival in Feakle last year. He saw a man exhibiting the symptoms of Parkinson’s discard his walking aid to dance a set, and noticed he danced fluently.

On the back of the discovery, he joined with a Dublin-based researcher to conduct a study whereby they sent 24 patients with Parkinson’s to weekly set-dancing classes over a six-month period.The study found all showed signs of improvement in terms of balance, mobility and quality of life, compared with a control group.
On the back of this finding, the University of Limerick has now applied for ethical approval for a larger study, which they hope to undertake this summer. Once approved, the university will contact the Parkinson’s Association of Ireland to recruit people interested in participating in the study.

Those involved in the study have also been invited to speak at this year’s Feakle Festival about how the research is going and what their findings have been.

Researcher Joanne Shanahan who is a MSc research student at UL together with her supervisors Dr Amanda Clifford, lecturer in the Department of Clinical Therapies as UL, Dr Orfhlaith Ní Bhriain from World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick and Prof Meg Morris of La Trobe University in Melbourne in Australia are all involved in this study.

They carried out an initial study with the assistance of Margaret Richardson, Parkinson’s Nurse Specialist entitled: A Randomized Controlled Feasibility Trial to Determine the Effectiveness of Set Dancing for People with Parkinson’s Disease. This study was part of a multicentre trial in collaboration Dr Daniele Volpe at St John of God Hospital Parkinson’s Centre in Venice, Italy.

The aim of this study was to investigate the feasibility and effectiveness of Irish set dancing for those with Parkinson’s disease in Ireland, and follows Dr Volpe’s discovery at the Feakle Traditional Music Festival.

Dr Amanda Clifford of the University of Limerick explained how their study came about. “Dr Volpe spoke in Dublin about the research that he has been doing. He is a neurologist and he plays guitar. He was at the Feakle Festival and when he was there he noticed that people were able to move freer. Joanne Shanahan is doing her masters of research here, she is a qualified physiotherapist and a qualified set dancing teacher and she wanted to see if she could look at the effectiveness of Irish set dancing in an Irish population.

“She looked at all previous research and looked into dance in people with Parkinsons. We did a pilot study which we just finished and that was to inform a bigger study and to see the numbers and type of tests. We hope to roll out the bigger study now this summer. We are looking for a bigger group of people in this region who will partake in this research at the University of Limerick. It’s a big collaboration. Orfhlaith is looking at the Irish dance element of it and at the music element because there is evidence to suggest that the rhythms of the music and the stepping part of Irish step dancing are beneficial for people with Parkinson’s disease. A big factor is also the enjoyment and physical component of it,” Dr Clifford said.

As part of the initial study they examined if participants would be able to partake fully in an eight week programme of Irish set dancing classes. They also looked at any measurable changes in functional exercise tolerance, balance, motor performance and quality of life following participation in set dancing classes.

“Twelve people with Parkinson’s disease were randomly assigned to a dance group or a control group. Participants were assessed before and after attending the set dancing classes and the data is currently been analyzed. The results of this study will give an indication about the feasibility of Irish set dancing for people with Parkinson’s disease and inform the methods and numbers required for the larger study which is due to start before the end of the summer,” Dr Clifford outlined.

She confirmed that she has been asked to speak at the Feakle Festival on what the study has found at that time and to report the results of their pilot trial.

“Joanne, Daniele and I plan to attend the Feakle Traditional Irish Music Festival on Tuesday August 6. The programme is yet to be finalised but Daniele is hoping to have a few key lectures on the topic of Parkinson’s disease and dance followed by a demonstration and workshops. Dr Volpe has also looked for Irish participants to attend the festival along with some Italians he is bringing over for the festival this year,” Dr Clifford said. She hopes that some participants on their study will join this delegation.

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