Issue 3 – Thomas Armstrong, MI for Healthy Aging

March, 2023

This month’s essay reflecting on 40 years of multiple intelligences is by world renowned educator, Thomas Armstrong. Multiple Intelligences Theory as a Model for Healthy Aging Programs

Thomas has been an inspirational leader for educators around the world since shortly after Frames of Mind was published in 1983. I remember teaching a class of teachers and using his fine book, MI In the Classroom, because it was the only book packed full of tips for bringing the power of multiple intelligences directly into classroom teaching. The students greatly appreciated reading his ideas, activities and strategies that were not included in Frames of Mind.  

I personally learned a lot from Thomas’ common sense and creative ideas for engaging all students in active learning activities. His strategies and approaches for helping students with disabilities and learning differences are of particular note. He also provides detailed guidance for using the eight MI to enhance success in the traditional academic skills of reading, math and memorization so there there is no barrier between IQ-type skills and MI.

I recommend his book The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing for insight into how MI bridges to academic skill building.

This new essay MI Theory as a Model for Healthy Aging provides practical strategies for brain activation to ameliorate cognitive decline associated with dementia. His ideas remind me of my early days as a neuropsychologist treating survivors of traumatic brain injury where MI strengths were the keys to recovery.

Maybe what I most admire about Thomas is his drive and enthusiasm for inspiring educators to bring out the best in everyone regardless of their strengths and limitations. His dedication to promoting human potential is a guiding light for us all.

Multiple Intelligences Theory as a Model for Healthy Aging Programs by Thomas Armstrong

Now that we’ve reached the fortieth year since the launch of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, it seems appropriate to take stock of what has been achieved and what hasn’t.  Certainly, MI theory has arguably had its biggest impact in the world of K-12 education.  Hundreds of books have been written on its application in the K-12 classroom, and tens of thousands of schools around the world have sought to implement many of its most essential findings (Chen, Moran, & Gardner, 2009).[1]  Unfortunately, like any educational trend, it seems to have had a distinct trajectory, rising in the 1990’s and 2000’s and then declining (at least in terms of its coverage in the educational and national media) in the late 2010’s and 2020’s (Google Books Ngram Viewer, n.d.).[2]    The reasons for this downward trend are many.  As Dr. Branton Shearer has pointed out in a recent article, systemic change in the schools is very difficult to achieve (Shearer, 2009).[3] Multiple intelligences-inspired schools and even entire school districts have woven wonders into their curricula and school schedules, only to see these changes unravel simply through a new principal or school board coming on board with a different educational philosophy. In addition, the entire climate in schools over the past forty years have mitigated against a full-bodied humanistic transformation of American education due to a climate emphasizing academic ‘’rigor,’’ accountability, and standardized tests and curricula (Armstrong, 2019).[4] More recently, COVID’s impact upon the schools have caused educators to be less engaged with substantial school reforms of any kind and more engaged with concerns such as ‘’learning loss’’ due to pandemic-related school closures, inconsistent and inequitable distance learning opportunities, and social and emotional health issues of teachers and students (Dorn, Hancock, Sarakatsannis, & Viruleg, 2021).[5]   Finally, during this time, the practice of education in America has been distorted through politicization and the impact of ‘’culture wars,’’ which seek to make ideology a key agent of change through the banning of books, the thwarting of LGBTQ initiatives, the legislative control of what can be said and taught in the classroom, and other anti-democratic measures (Alleyne, 2022)[6].  Against these broader social forces, MI theory’s chances for a robust resurgence in popularity any time soon seem slim. 

signed copy of Blackstone print; SCRC N3#-1479; Dewey Center Copyright? 47/2/1 Dewey12

     It should be noted that over the past 100 years of American education, there has been a pendulum swing between (borrowing from William James’ dichotomy) ‘’tender-minded’’ reforms and ‘’tough-minded’’ assertions of power over U.S. schools.  We’ve seen Dewey’s progressive education of the 1910’s-1940’s, the open education movement of the 1960’s, and Howard Gardner’s MI innovations of the 1990’s and 2000’s as  examples of the tender-minded reforms, while early 20th century traditional education, the 1970’s back-to- basic movement, and the 1990’s and 2000’s No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top measures have served as tough-minded prequels or reactions to these reforms.   Given this alternation of tough- and tender-minded philosophies in education, it’s possible to assert with a reasonable degree of confidence that something like MI will arise once again at some point in the future, but probably with a different form, a different name, and likely a different group of reformers. 

     Given the above, I suggest that educators who support MI theory and want to see it succeed as an educational force in America might consider re-directing some of their energies away from K-12 education and toward adult learning. The opportunities for MI theory making a significant impact upon aging populations in particular are just waiting to be exploited. By 2034, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that older adults will edge out children in population size.  People age 65 and over are expected to number 77.0 million . . . , while children under age 18 will number 76.5 million (Vespa, 2018).[7]  Of that population, a significant percentage will be at risk of acquiring such age-related disorders as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy Body disease.  Current estimates suggest that there are about 5.8 million adults aged 65 and older who have Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and that this will increase to 14 million adults by 2060 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019).[8]  While research suggests that genetics plays a significant part in the development of these diseases, scientists are beginning to recognize that the environment may have a key role to play as well. 

Over the past fifteen to twenty years, the idea that environmental influences can affect brain structure and function (one aspect of what’s been termed neuroplasticity) has become a solid component of neuroscience research, and a popular topic of public discourse. A search of Google Scholar shows over 160,000 scholarly articles on the subject of neuroplasticity. Popular treatments of neuroplasticity such as Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself and Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score have been multi-year best-sellers.  The fame accorded to the Mankato, Minnesota nuns study, where an on-going commitment to lifelong learning in the Catholic monastic order was associated with longer life and less dementia, woke up the public and professionals alike to the potential role of stimulating learning experiences as a bulwark against Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias in late adulthood (Snowdon, 2002).[9]

     It seems to me that MI theory is tailor-made for this fortunate confluence of an aging population, emerging research in neuroplasticity, and practical projects that seek to forestall or prevent cognitive decline as we grow older.  I’d like to illustrate the possibilities inherent in such an effort by looking at each of Howard Gardner’s eight intelligences in turn, to see what research says about specific cognitive-based interventions to combat age-related dementias. Note that I’ve used Gardner’s terminology, and then in parenthesis, my own translation of his terms. And I should perhaps emphasize here, for those unfamiliar with Gardner’s theory, that his model is a theory of cognition, and that each of the intelligences discussed below represent a different form of cognition operating internally within human brain and externally within human culture.

            Linguistic Intelligence (Word Smart):  A study of Chinese elders (age 65+) suggested that intellectual activities that included among other pursuits reading books, newspapers, or magazines, led to a significantly lower risk of dementia several years later independent of other health behaviors, physical health limitations, and sociodemographic factors (Richards, Lee, and Chan, 2018).[10]  In addition, other research has suggested that learning a second language can forestall the appearance of Alzheimer’s symptoms in older populations (Anderson, Hawrylewicz, & Grundy, 2018).[11]

            Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (Number/Logic Smart). The study cited above also indicated that playing board games, card games, and games like Mahjong, which at least in part have a logical-mathematical basis, similarly led to a significantly lower risk of dementia. Studies also show that the ability to perform simple math problems, as well as handling financial matters, are typically among the first set of skills to decline in Alzheimer’s and other dementias, suggesting that training in these areas may help to forestall symptoms (Triebel, Martin, Griffith et al., 2009).[12]

            Spatial Intelligences (Picture Smart).  In a randomized controlled study of older adults with mild cognitive impairment, an art therapy program was seen to improve cognitive functioning with additional improvements in visuospatial abilities, attention, working memory, and executive function (Lee, Wong, Shoon, et al., 2019).[13]

            Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (Body Smart).  A growing body of research supports the idea that physical exercise is associated with better cognitive function in older adults (Erickson, Gildengers, & Butters, 2013).[14]

            Musical Intelligence (Music Smart),  One study reported that musicians were 64% less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia, after additionally adjusting for sex, education and physical activity, and a meta-analysis of two cohort studies found a 59% reduction in the risk of developing dementia among musicians (Walsh & Baynes, 2021).[15]

            Interpersonal Intelligence (People Smart).  A number of observational studies suggest that social participation and connectedness are protective against cognitive decline (Sachdev, 2022).[16]

            Intrapersonal Intelligence (Self Smart).  There is an emerging consensus of the connection in the literature between depression and an increased possibility for the development of dementia in later adulthood (Byers & Yaffee, 2011).[17]  Strategies which promote emotional self-regulation, such as mindfulness, have been seen as a possible approach to delay or prevent cognitive decline in later life (Ng, Feng, Fam, et al., 2021).[18]

            Naturalist Intelligence (Nature Smart).  There have been some preliminary studies suggesting that immersion in nature utilizing a method called Urban Forest Therapy, may be helpful in ameliorating the negative effects of cognitive decline and dementia in older adults (Lee & Son, 2018).[19]

     The foregoing studies are just the tip of the iceberg in suggesting the broad potential of multiple intelligences to inform a concerted holistic approach to ameliorating cognitive decline in late adulthood.  A key criterion that Howard Gardner used to establish the validity of MI theory was that each intelligence should be capable of being isolated through brain damage, suggesting the existence of specific brain regions or systems that underly each of the eight intelligences (Gardner, 1983). [20] Neuroplasticity findings indicate that environmental influences can strengthen neuronal connections (Donald Hebb’s maxim applies here: ‘’what fires together, wires together’’).  Thus, MI education could be seen to maximize the ‘’cognitive reserves’’ available in the brain for combating dementia; the theory being that if a brain has a greater richness of neuronal connections, it will be more resilient to damage effected by dementia. In other words, there will be surplus of functioning connections that will take up the slack, so to speak, for damaged areas of the brain.  A dementia prevention program that simply focuses on linguistic intelligence (word smart) through reading, writing, foreign languages, and the like, will only optimize the linguistic areas of the brain.  On the other hand, a dementia prevention program that targets multiple regions of the brain that underlie the eight intelligences, will fortify more regions of the brain, thus enhancing the ability of individuals to resist or overcome the deterioration associated with dementia.

     The proposed creation of a healthy aging multiple intelligences program or curriculum, would be an attractive tool for a variety of institutions and groups throughout the United States that cater to an older adult population.  Some of these organizations include: AARP (The American Association of Retired Persons), the National Council on Aging, and Experience Works, while institutions that might integrate such a program could include:  clinics, hospitals, assisted living facilities, caregiver services, health promotion groups, senior advocacy centers, and senior memory care facilities. To operationalize such an approach, the following tasks suggest what next steps need to be taken:

  • Development of an MI dementia prevention (and/or amelioration) program that includes among many other possible interventions: 
    • Art therapy and visual thinking activities (Picture Smart)
    • Foreign language instruction, bibliotherapy, and creative writing (Word Smart)
    • Music training (Music Smart)
    • Mindfulness practices and journal writing (Self Smart)
    • Logic puzzles and games (Number/Logic Smart)
    • Social engagement (People Smart)
    • Physical exercise (Body Smart)
    • Nature experiences (Nature Smart)
  • Testing the program or curriculum with specific senior populations, including those with normal cognition, moderate cognitive decline, and full-blown dementia (this might entail establishing working relationships with medical schools, graduate psychology programs, and/or other research-based institutions).
  • Forging alliances with specific senior-related institutions (such as those listed above).
  • Operationalizing and scaling these programs so that they can be utilized by as many seniors as possible.

Agism is an ongoing problem in our technologically-advanced society, and there are fewer and fewer opportunities for elders to express the wisdom that has been an integral part of the vital contribution they make to the human life cycle.  By supporting the health needs of our senior population through effective use of healthy aging programs that maximize the preservation of the aging brain using multiple intelligences as a supporting framework, we can make it possible for more elders to retain and/or regain their essential vitality, for themselves, their families, and their communities, and ultimately to be able to express the wisdom that is their unique gift to humanity (Armstrong, 2019).[21]

[1] Chen, J-Q., Moran, S., & Gardner, H. (2009).  Multiple Intelligences Around the World.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass.

[2] Google Books Ngram Viewer,

[3]Shearer, B. (2023, February 20).  Multiple intelligences @ 40- Human potential: Evolution or revolution?

[4]Armstrong, T. (2019).  If Einstein Ran the Schools:  Revitalizing U.S. Education.  Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers.   

[5]Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J, & Viruleg, E. (2021, July 27).  COVID-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning.  McKinsey & Company.

[6] Alleyne, A. (2022, September 19).  Book banning, curriculum restrictions, and the politicization of U.S. schools.  The Center for American Progress.

[7] Vespa, J., (2018, March 13).  The graying of America: More older adults than kids by 2035.  The United States Census Bureau.

[8] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019, August 20).  Alzheimer’s and Healthy Aging: Minorities and Women Are at Greater Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.

[9] Snowdon, D. (2002). Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives.  New York: Bantam. 

[10] Lee, A.T.C., Richards, M, Chan, W.C., et al. (2018).  Association of daily intellectual activities with lower incident dementia among older Chinese adults.  JAMA Psychiatry, 75(7): 697-703.

[11] Anderson, J.A.E., Hawrylewicz, K., & Grundy, J.G. (2018, October). Does bilingualism protect against dementia? A meta-analysis, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 27(5): 952-965.

[12] Triebel, K.L., Martin, R., Griffith, H.R. et al. (2009, September 22)).  Declining financial capacity in mild cognitive impairment: A 1-year longitudinal study. Neurology, 73(12): 928-934.

[13] Lee, R., Wong, J. Shoon, W.L. et al. (2019). Art therapy for the prevention of cognitive decline, The Arts in Psychotherapy, 64: 20-25.

[14] Erickson, K.I., Gildengers, A.G., & Butters, M.A. (2013). Physical activity and brain plasticity in late adulthood, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 15(1): 99-108.

[15] Walsh, S., & Bayne, C.E. (2021, December).  Does playing a musical instrument prevent dementia? Alzheimer’s and Dementia Supplement: Public Health, 17(S10):

[16] Sachdev, P.S. (2022, March).  Social health, social reserve and dementia.  Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 35(2): 111-117. 

[17] Byers, A.L. & Yaffee, K. (2011).  Depression and risk of developing dementia, Nature Reviews Neurology, 7(6): 232-331.

[18]Ng, T.K.S., Feng, L., Fam, J. et al (2021). Mindfulness awareness practice (MAP) to prevent dementia in older adults with mild cognitive impairment: Protocol of a randomized controlled trial and implementation outcomes. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18: 10205.

[19] Lee, H.J., & Son, S.A. (2018, December).  Qualitative assessment of experience on Urban Forest Therapy Program for preventing dementia of the elderly living alone in low-income class.  Journal of People, Plants, and Environment, 21(6): 565-574. 

[20] Gardner, H. (1983).  Frames of Mind:  The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  New York:  Basic Books.

[21] Armstrong, T. (2019).  The Human Odyssey:  Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life.  Garden City, NY: Ixia/Dover Publications.

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