As if we needed more reasons to knit! But this one's a pretty good one!
Purls of wisdom by Irene Sege
There are many reasons people learn to knit. Their mothers or their grandmothers taught them. They wanted to learn something creative. They decided to add one more craft to their repertoire.
Me? I learned to knit for my brain.
I always thought I lacked the patience and fine motor skills for knitting. Then, at my last checkup, I mentioned relatives who have struggled with Alzheimer's disease. My doctor told me I should learn to knit. Or master a new dance step. Or a language. Or a musical instrument. That, she said, would open new neural pathways that Sudoku and crossword puzzles couldn't.
I'm certainly not one to always listen to my healthcare professional - just ask my dentist about flossing - but I guess I'm more worried about my mind than my gums. So in the fall I took a class at my local yarn store and joined a knitting group. Now I knit and I purl. I've made a basketweave scarf for one daughter and a ribbed scarf for the other. I'm working on a sweater designed for "enthusiastic beginners." I increase and slip stitches and i-cord. I unravel my mistakes and start again. And I pray that neurologists are right in their emerging insights into the brain.
Years ago, common wisdom held that human beings are born with a finite number of brain cells, some number of which die as we get older. Lately scientists have discovered that the brain is capable of creating new connections throughout our lives. To be sure, the younger brain is more adaptive than the older brain, but even older brains are capable of generating new pathways.
I'm certainly not the only middle-aged person concerned with keeping my mind. When the baby boomers enter old age, the number of Americans with Alzheimer's - currently 5.3 million people - could, absent a breakthrough, jump to 7.7 million in 2030 and as many as 16 million in 2050, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Jeannette McWilliams, who is 61, watched for a decade before her mother succumbed to Alzheimer's last year. Three years ago she took up drumming, in part to stave off dementia in herself. "Anything I could do to keep my mind sharp," she says. "I am concerned with my family history." When McWilliams told Dr. Marie Pasinski, the Massachusetts General Hospital neurologist who treated her mother, about her drumming, Pasinski started talking more often to patients' family members about their own brain health.
"It's empowering to know that you're doing things that can only help you," Pasinski says. "It's certainly not going to make your life worse."
She calls McWilliams's drumming "a wonderful thing" for her brain. "You're learning how to read music. You're listening to the music you play. You're developing your fine motor pathways as you use your fingers," Pasinski says. "Music can really change our moods and lift our spirits. It does appear that people who have a brighter outlook on life have a lower risk of dementia."
Pasinski is equally encouraging about my knitting.
"You're learning something new, how to make new patterns," she says. "You're learning new motor patterns. You're following instructions. You have to really focus and concentrate as you're learning to knit. To keep challenging your brain, you'll want to learn more complicated patterns as your skills advance."
The doctor likes knitting groups, too. "Socializing with others stimulates your brain," she says. "You're listening to what they're saying. You're processing the language. You're making eye contact. You're observing. You're sharing emotions. That's using much broader areas of your brain than when you're just watching TV."
It turns out that knitting isn't the only thing I'm doing for my brain. The fact that I exercise regularly is good for my brain as well as the rest of my body. "The same conditions that affect the arteries that nourish the heart and cause heart disease also affect the arteries that nourish the brain," Pasinski says.
I clicked on the AARP website the other day and found an article titled "50 Ways to Boost Your Noodle." On the list are playing Wii video games, eating blueberries, and talking politics.
There are no guarantees, of course, that heeding this advice will prevent dementia or delay its onset or slow its progression. Only a hope. Meanwhile, there's plenty of pleasure and no harm in learning to knit. And blueberries are delicious.