Some families like to party together, some like to holiday together, and if Sooraj Barjatya is to be believed, some families like to pray together. Well, as a family, we do a lot of things together (prayer excepted), but one thing we do a lot is to watch Agatha Christie TV adaptations. Dame Christie plays a huge role in my family life – to give an example, our family group on Whatsapp has the name Poirot – even though on most days my father finds it difficult to pronounce the word (sorry Papa, but it is the truth!). My sister has the entire Hercule Poirot and Mrs Marple series in hard copy and keeps buying them on Kindle as well. My mother, sister and I have read most of the books, some more than once – we know the mystery, we know who has done it and yet; we watch the TV adaptation (David Suchet, Geraldine McEwan) and watch the movie adaptation (Murder on the Orient Express) each time as if we know nothing about it.
I wonder why we like these two sleuths so much – considering most people find one eccentric and the other one boring. I think it is those little grey cells which Monsieur Poirot very immodestly claims to possess in abundance. Mrs Marple is more humble about her talents, but what she lacks in immodesty she makes up in nosiness. In that spirit, I sat down to watch one of Mrs Marple adaptations – At Bertram’s Hotel – and while people were dying all around her; she sat quietly in a corner knitting away, exercising her grey cells. She solved the mystery in the end – no surprises there, but it made me think if there was a connection between knitting and grey cells.
I know many of you are going to say she is a fictional character and lives in the author’s imagination, so the fact she knits proves nothing. Well, I investigated further. Did you know that Albert Einstein was an avid knitter? Several smart, famous people are well-known knitters – Eleanor Roosevelt, George Lucas, Margaret Atwood, the current Queen of England, Julia Gillard (Former PM of Australia), Sir Patrick Stewart, Meryl Streep, Andre Dubus II, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant, Barabara Kingsolver, Ann Patchett, Christopher Walken, Julia Roberts, Ryan Gosling, Sarah Jessica Parker, Russell Crowe, etc, etc. I can go on and on. But that’s a good sample size, if you ask me, to draw an inference.
However, let’s leave famous people aside and take an example closer home. Have you ever wondered how your grandmother, who in a professional setting would have retired by now, knits so much – an activity that is strenuous and requires precision, focus and even mathematical ability. Knitting, by no standard, is easy and yet, your grandmother continues to conjure up beautiful sweaters from mere balls of string, even at an advanced age. It is my argument that knitting has something to do with our grey cells and I don’t even need to rely on just anecdotal evidence to prove it – there are now enough studies which support this point.
I have already told you knitting helps in reducing stress and anxiety in an earlier post – the repetitive movement of needles leads to a meditative state. Sustained focused attention reduces the stress hormone, cortisol, and helps release endorphins and dopamine, which leaves one with a sense of well-being. In fact, a research study conducted in Australia has concluded that those who engaged in 100 or more hours/year of arts engagement (i.e. two or more hours/week) reported significantly better mental well-being than those with lesser other levels of engagement. So the connection between arts (knitting) and mental health is clearly established.
But my research also shows that knitting can keep your brain sharp and reduce cognitive impairment as you grow older, reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As we speak, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s or dementia, and the best we can do is to postpone its onset as much as possible. Studies have shown cognitive exercises or mind-stimulating activities like knitting help to create a rich network of connections between brain cells. Over the years, as some of these connections break down, the practice of mind-stimulating activities helps in creating new ones. I must admit, these studies include activities other than knitting – such as playing board games, reading or writing for leisure, playing a musical instrument, doing crosswords, dancing – which also reduce cognitive impairment. But I am a knitter, so I will always promote knitting first.
The reason I invoked your grandmothers earlier was to argue that the reason you grandmothers can still undertake an activity such as knitting, which requires the brain to be sharp, at an advanced age could be because they have kept their brains sharp by knitting most of their lives. Sounds like a circular argument? It is not – makes perfect sense to me and applies in case of both my grandmothers who knitted for many years. One of them died at 80, and she was alert and sharp as a whip till the very end. The other one is going to turn 91 soon, and apart from age-related ailments, she remains aware and sharp (I mean she is making plans for her afterlife on her own, how much sharper can you get?). All this makes me think there has to be some connection somewhere. Don’t you think?
My humble, unsolicited advice – this New Year give yourself a gift. Just like you would get a gym subscription to get into good physical shape, take up a mind stimulating activity like knitting to get into good mental shape. You deserve it!
Read more on the connection between mind stimulating activities and Alzheimer’s here.
To know more about the study conducted in Australia connecting mental health and arts engagement, download the full article