Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic condition affecting over 35 million adults worldwide. The disease affects the brain impacting memory, attention, language, and other cognitive functions. There is no known cure but there are many treatments that can delay and help manage Alzheimer’s disease. A 2011 study by the Mayo Clinic followed 800 women for 44 years and found that regularly knitting or crocheting may reduce cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s by 30-50%. This reduction in risk occurs for a variety of reasons. Learning new skills promotes new connections in the brain which stimulate cognitive activity. Practicing and learning new stitches provides ample opportunity to make new connections at any skill level. The same Mayo Clinic study found that for respondents in very poor health, 92% reported that knitting improved their general health. Specifically, 21% believed that knitting improved their arthritis symptoms and 26% sited reduced blood pressure. The study compared groups who regularly exercised to those who did not, and the positive impact of knitting was present for both groups, showing that knitting is an ideal activity for people with limited mobility. Needle and yarn sizes can be increased to help create an appropriate challenge level for those with limited fine motor control or reduced vision. The versatility of knitting means that almost anyone can find materials and a pattern that works for them.
Knitting requires pattern recognition, fine motor control, and math, all of which are key skills for keeping the mind sharp. These same skills are taught in Waldorf schools to build the minds of children through tactile activity and knitting is taught before reading, because the skills it teaches are so important. In addition to improving the function of the brain and body, knitting provides social opportunities for seniors who can have a difficult time meeting new people and connecting on a regular basis. Knitting keeps the hands busy but knitters can still talk to one another and socialize over their crafts. This kind of bonding has been part of knitting culture forever and is an important part of the therapeutic effect of knitting. Talking about projects and techniques sharpens the mind and builds a social bond between members of a knitting circle. One such circle is Knit2gether, a knitting group for adults with dementia. One member reminisces on how knitting with friends has helped him.
‘Getting involved in this club has brought back so many happy memories, gets my brain working, gives me something to do and when I am feeling down it has helped me not to feel so sorry for myself.’
Knitting also stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain which is a natural antidepressant and aids in cognitive function. Depression and Alzheimer’s often cooccur so engaging in dopamine-producing activity is doubly important for those at risk. Each stitch provides a small surge of dopamine in the brain creating a continuous cycle of positive feedback for the knitter. One study of adults 70-89 showed that knitting boosted self-esteem, gave knitters an enhanced sense of purpose, connected them to their heritage, and enabled them to leave behind a legacy. Many knitters learn the craft from their family or friends which strengthens the positive association even for those who may not remember learning to knit. Many people with Alzheimer’s struggle with short term memory but retain memories from earlier in their lives which means that even those struggling with memory can engage in knitting as long as they learned to knit earlier in life. The repetitive motion of knitting also engages the cerebellum for what is called muscle memory, making the skill easier to retain.
In short, knitting can provide a spectrum of benefits for anyone but especially those who are predisposed to developing Alzheimer’s disease. The earlier the skill is learned, the easier it will be to practice and retain for a lifetime. The best pattern for someone living with Alzheimer’s will depend on their ability level but some interesting patterns can be found below. Twiddlemuffs are designed to be easy to make and fun to play with for all ages. They can help pass the time and provide diverse stimuli all in one small project. Many different materials can be used and creativity is encouraged!