Wed, 9 May, 2018Over60

Prevent dementia by writing shorthand?

Prevent dementia by writing shorthand?

Carmel Taylor is a 63 year old business teacher. She has worked as a stenographer and personal assistant prior to teaching. Her passion is shorthand and her hobbies are art deco, fashion and sewing. Carmel is a member of the Commercial Education Society of Australia.

Prevent dementia by writing shorthand? Who’d have thought? Certainly, when I learnt shorthand nearly 50 years ago my aim was to master the skill, to use it professionally and then one day teach shorthand. I had no idea that what I was doing was learning a skill which is excellent brain training and has now been identified as a method to assist dementia prevention.

Stenography has long been a highly-regarded skill in Europe, with stenography clubs in major towns, many dating back over 100 years - long before shorthand’s common purpose was for business purposes mainly used by women. Members of the German Minden club believed that they were not just participating in a challenging past time – they also perceived that there were significant cognitive advantages associated with shorthand.  The club teamed with the Gerontology Department of the Coppenbrugge Hospital to research “shorthand against dementia”.  Members, aged between 62 and 73 participated in exercises revising or learning shorthand on a weekly basis over several years. On- going memory test results showed participants experienced either no memory deterioration or even improved memory, in spite of aging during the process. The Minden stenography club received community accolades for this work. Stenography clubs throughout Germany and Switzerland offer courses in teaching and revising shorthand, with titles such as “Shorthand Against Forgetting”, and “Shorthand for the Memory”. Many groups include social activities as well as the mental stimulation of shorthand.

As a teenager eagerly waiting to learn shorthand at school, I had many conversations with my aunt, also a stenographer.  She inspired me with her memory of the theory of this fascinating skill and certainly increased my enthusiasm for my up-coming studies. Whilst learning, I continued to discuss my progress with her. My teacher also influenced my desire to eventually teach the skill. One day I flattered her, saying that I “wanted to do what you do”. She asked me what I meant – “to teach shorthand like you do”.  After a business career, I took the opportunity to become a teacher – this included shorthand.  I was in my element! I was teaching shorthand to teenagers; then to adults at night school.

So, what is so magical about writing shorthand that has such an impact on the brain?  Shorthand uses several complex, cognitive processes. When learning shorthand, as with a foreign language, we memorise the theory and words to enable us to reproduce the outlines. We store the words we hear in the short term (or working) memory whilst the brain processes the decision of how to produce  them precisely on paper, drawing on the long-term memory.  When I learnt shorthand as a teenager I had no idea that this cognitive process, known as brain training, was happening – or more importantly, that I was learning a skill which could potentially assist prevention of dementia.

As my fascination for the benefits of shorthand has grown over recent years, so has my knowledge of what groups of shorthand writers overseas are doing.  The Shorthand Writers of Maine in USA – a group of highly enthusiastic shorthand writers who meet monthly to revise theory, write shorthand from quizzes and puzzles, and, so importantly, socialise. The group has a wide range of ages, with several members in their 90’s.  Everything is all good fun – no tests or exams – just personal goals they set themselves to achieve in a convivial environment. My aunt would have been just the candidate for membership of such a group, given the opportunity.   

Dementia is the second leading cause of death in Australia. The number of dementia sufferers is spiralling, as are associated financial and emotional costs. The projection is that one in six women will experience the effects of dementia, whilst with men this will be one in eleven.   Dementia  Australia’s website of “Your Brain Matters” advises that people who regularly stimulate their brain with complex mental activities are less likely to develop dementia. This is further enhanced when social activities are combined with challenging activities.

Shorthand exercises many aspects of challenging the brain. Challenging of the brain leads to neural plasticity, the ability of the brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, and we  now know that this can take place at any age, given the right conditions, so that older people who continue to involve themselves with new and challenging activities can have a healthy ageing experience. It was once thought that neural plasticity ceased to occur with ageing, and that all the connections had to be in place prior to this. Thankfully, we older people can now have some degree of control over this, based on our lifestyle. I find this so empowering.

What these stenographers in Europe and Maine are achieving is exactly what Dementia Australia has prescribed as the essentials for dementia prevention activities – mentally challenging activities which are not overwhelming, which are enjoyable and which are conducted in a social atmosphere.  These shorthand groups tick all the boxes!

For me, I now make time on a regular basis to revise my theory and to regain dexterity with my shorthand writing. I am also reading short stories in shorthand, before shortly moving onto classic novels like Sherlock Holmes, and Treasure Island.  Who knows, one day I may challenge myself to work my way through the many works of Charles Dickens (himself a shorthand writer) which have been transcribed into shorthand. And why am I doing this?  Well, firstly for the satisfaction I feel when I can read a difficult outline – we need to feel accomplished in small feats at any age, but particularly as we get older and may not be in the workforce.  Secondly, I now know that I am taking positive steps to not only maintain “the little grey cells” but to increase them. I am taking some control of the situation to avoid potentially becoming one of the one in six women who will be affected by dementia.  

Who’d have thought that these ‘squiggles on paper’, as shorthand is often referred to, go hand in hand with the grey matter!