The Aging Dancer – Part 2 – What is Glycation?


by Janine Bryant for The Dance Journal

Classical ballet dancers work in a community permeated by a culture of ‘youthful aging’. In the social world of ballet, as in many athletic sports, a thirty-year old is perceived as ‘old’. Even young dancers who are injured are liable to feel that they are losing precious time out of their short careers. {2} I honestly do not believe this perspective is limited to the world of classical ballet, however, as I have many friends and colleagues dancing in elite modern dance, jazz and contemporary dance companies,  teaching and choreographing in studios everywhere, who experience similar physical and mental demands. What can be said for older dancers is that we possess a body knowledge that is enviable by younger dancers with a connection to our own physiology that takes years to develop. With this in mind, how can dancers above the age of 30 or 35 care for their aging instruments in such a way as to better cope with the process of aging and even possibly delay it a bit?

There are many definitions of the term ‘aging’ available that include defining a life stage, a time in history,  or a process of decline.  For the purposes of this article, I am using the following working definition of aging as the process of becoming older, a process that is genetically determined and environmentally modulated.{1}

This three-part article began with an introduction on aging for dancers and touched on available research that may help dancers understand the aging process more clearly.  To that end, we will be looking at research on the process of aging and how it can effect technique, performance, brain functions, such as retention of new ideas and choreography, as well as inflammation and recovery. That’s a tall order and there is much information out there on how the general population ages.  However, there is very little information available on how aging really effects dancers and so this is the gap in the research that needs filling. It is possible, though, to look at current information on the general as well as athlete populations, which could help bridge some of the gaps toward understanding how dancers age.

Research on how something or someone declines is not sexy research! It would be more exciting to measure how high a developpe can go or how fast a dancer could execute multiple turns en dedans!   However, what cannot be disputed is that there are aging dancers in studios and on stages everywhere coping with pain, loss of function and injury but still ‘dancing through it’, as we always have done, who could greatly benefit from the research.  Of the many aspects of aging that are subject to discussion, this post will look at the process of glycation over time as a possible mechanism for function loss and what environmental factors (intrinsic and extrinsic) dancers can me made aware of that affect this process.

Glycation is the bonding of a sugar molecule to a protein or lipid. Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) can form both outside and inside the body and stem from this glycation reaction which can make cells stiffer, less pliable and more subject to damage (cross-linking) and premature aging. Some extrinsic factors that can increase glycation are smoking and diet. For smokers, the manufacturing process of tobacco leaves as they are dried with sugar can leave behind AGEs that are inhaled.  Dietary AGEs can form during cooking at very high temperatures and also from intake of carbohydrates and starches that turn to sugar in the body.

AGEs increase in the brain during normal aging. Interestingly, experimental evidence supports the premise that AGEs are further increased in the brain in the presence of vascular or Alzheimer’s dementia. {3} Other intrinsic factors include family history, especially one of diabetes and the relationship between diabetes, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s disease is still under active investigation. Some studies suggest that diabetes may be associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, along with enhanced decline in some cognitive systems.  In addition, inflammatory stimuli, physical injury, bouts of intermittent (or sustained) hyperglycemia, during which AGE formation is likely a key first step in a broad array of injury settings, can generate an inflammatory scaffold in AGEd tissues. {3}

How, then, do dancers interpret this information? Recent studies have suggested that diets high in AGEs, such as those exposed to high temperatures, may accelerate the consequences of natural aging and diabetes.  When tested in human subjects, the reduction of inflammatory mediators was observed in human diabetic subjects consuming low-AGE food (food cooked at lower temperatures for longer periods of time).  Further, the restriction of glycotoxins (sugar) was found to reduce excess levels of AGEs in human subjects with renal failure. Taken together, these observations strongly suggest that lifestyle modification, including diet, may exert potent influences on inflammation, aging, and the consequences of diabetes. {3}

In looking at both the intrinsic and extrinsic factors, dancers could benefit from learning about their family histories as well as taking a look at possible impacts from individual environments.  Lifestyles that include plenty of rest, no smoking, and nutritious food,  including plenty of protein,  may also play an important role in healthy aging.

Up next: Dancers’ age,  activities and pain levels – a global survey.

Until next time, friends, dance healthy and strong!

Janine Bryant
Acting Chair of Dance and Theater
Assistant Professor of Dance and Kinesiology
Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa.
[email protected]

1.  Medicinenet.com
2. Wainwright, SP, Turner, B, Just crumbling to bits? An exploration of the body, ageing, injury and career in classical dancers, Sociology, 2006, 40(2), 237-255.
3. Ramasamy R, et al, Advanced glycation end products and RAGE: a common thread in aging, diabetes, deurodegeneration, and inflammation, Glycobiology, 2005, 14(7) 16R-28R.

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