Busy people age 50 and older have better brain function, research shows

Extremely busy people older than age 50 do better on tests of cognitive function than their less busy peers.

“We show that people who report greater levels of daily busyness tend to have better cognition, especially with regard to memory for recently learned information,” says Sara Festini, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Vital Longevity of the University of Texas at Dallas and lead author of the study.

“We were surprised at how little research there was on busyness, given that being too busy seems to be a fact of modern life for so many,” says Denise Park, University Distinguished Chair at the Center for Vital Longevity, Director of the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study.

Frontiers In researchers surveyed 330 participants in the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study — healthy women and men between ages 50 and 89 from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, Texas, recruited through media advertisements and community notices — about their daily schedule. The participants also visited the Park Aging Mind laboratory at the Center for Vital Longevity, where they took part in a long series of neuropsychological tests to measure their cognitive performance.

See the research at FrontiersIn.org

The results show that at any age, and regardless of education, a busier lifestyle is associated with superior processing speed of the brain, working memory, reasoning, and vocabulary. Especially strong is the association between busyness and better episodic memory, the ability to remember specific events in the past.

Festini et al. warn that the present data do not allow the conclusion that being busy directly improves cognition. It is also possible that people with better cognitive function seek out a busier lifestyle, or that busyness and cognition reinforce each other, resulting in reciprocal strengthening. But one mediating factor accounting for the relationship might be new learning, propose the researchers. Busy people are likely to have more opportunities to learn as they are exposed to more information and encounter a wider range of situations in daily life.

In turn, learning is known to stimulate cognition: for example, a recent study from the Center for Vital Longevity found that a sustained effort in learning difficult new skills, such as digital photography or quilting, boosts episodic memory.

“Living a busy lifestyle appears beneficial for mental function, although additional experimental work is needed to determine if manipulations of busyness have the same effect,” Festini said.