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SciFest 09: Dancing doctors prescribe tango

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 12, 2009 - By day, Fred Chu is an ophthalmologist and Anita Chu is a neurologist. But by night, they are tango aficionados. At their SciFest session Saturday, "Tango to Your Health," the two physicians combined their passions to explain how tango can improve health, both mental and physical.

Studies have found that when senior citizens are taught basic tango steps, it improves their mood, helps them become less clumsy and gives them a better outlook on life. It also improved self-esteem, balance, mobility and their ability to multi-task. Patients with Alzheimer's saw these improvements as well as increased socialization.

But do you have to tango to get these benefits? What about exercise?

According to a study in Parkinson's patients, tango was better than exercise at improving balance and gait and reducing falls. But tango also had benefits that were less tangible. Patients reported being more confident and more positive in their mood. There was also an element of communication and helping one another in the tango dancers that was not seen among exercisers.

"When you dance, sometimes one partner can stumble," Fred Chu said. "And the other person, if they're in tune to it, can be firm and establish support. There's a give and take and an appreciation of two people helping each other that comes out."

Fred and Anita Chu then demonstrated a tango for the small but dedicated crowd. The Chus said they have been dancing together for 15 years. They started out as beginners taking group lessons, later progressed to private lessons and finally to dance competitions. Now in their early 60s, Fred Chu said they can out-dance kids in their 20s.

"Maybe we've found a fountain of youth," he said with a smile. "We'll report back in 10 years."

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis. She has a master's degree in biomedical engineering and works in hospital epidemiology for BJC HealthCare.

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