The upside of your packed calendar? It might help keep your noggin healthy as you age.
Good news for folks whose schedules are chock-full every day: Researchers have found that busy people have better memories. They also reason better and process information faster than people who are less busy, according to the study published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
But don't jump to any conclusions just yet about whether an overbooked calendar can stave off Alzheimer's or other aging-related brain issues. "This study doesn't assess the transition to dementia, but it does provide some motivation to potentially stay active and engaged," says study lead author Sara Festini, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate at the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Previous research has found that older adults who learned challenging new skills (like quilting, photography, or how to use an iPad) had better episodic memory—which is “the ability to learn and remember recently encountered information," explains Festini. Other studies have linked higher activity levels and more social engagement with better brain functioning.
But while "engagement" is seen in a positive light, "busyness" is generally considered a negative thing. Even science has suggested that stress hormones from busyness might actually hurt the brain.
For this new study, 330 adults aged 50 to 89 responded to questions such as, "How often do you have too many things to do each day to actually get them all done?" and "How often do you have so many things to do that you go to bed later than your regular bedtime?" (The participants did not provide any details about activities that kept them busy, or whether they were multi-tasking.)
As Festini expected, the busy bees in the study had better episodic memory. But that’s not all: The busier people were, the better they performed on tests that gauged vocabulary, information processing speed, and reasoning. This was true regardless of age.
The research doesn’t show a causal link between your schedule and your noggin. In other words, it doesn’t prove that keeping busy protects the brain. It could be that people who are naturally sharp tend to seek out more mental stimulation.
And we also don’t know if keeping busy helps with other mental tasks—such as remembering all those things you're supposed to do tomorrow, or next week.
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Now, the researchers are looking into whether busyness impacts brain function over time, in people between the ages of 20 and 89.
If the link between busyness and mental prowess holds up, it may be because staying active and learning new things promotes the development of new pathways in the brain. "Just like it's healthy for us to exercise our body, it's healthy for us to exercise our brain," says Jeffrey Borenstein, MD, the president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in New York City, who was not involved in the study. "You want people to be engaged and active. You want people to be socially engaged, assuming some of the busyness is busy with other people. Those types of activities are healthy for the brain."