Being Super Busy May* Be Good for Your Brain

*Does busyness boost cognition, or do people with better cognition tend to keep busy?

Is there a benefit to being overworked? settaphan / iStock

Slammed. Swamped. Flat out. Buried. No matter how it's said, the refrain is all too familiar—people are just too busy. But there's good news for the harried and hectic, new research shows that busy lifestyles may be good for your brain.

“There hasn't been much scientific research on busyness itself, although it's something that we talk about so often,” explains Sara Festini, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Vital Longevity, a co-author of the new research published this week in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. “So we wanted to look at the relationship of a generally very busy lifestyle to cognition.” 

Festini and colleagues found that middle-aged and older Americans who keep themselves busy test better across a whole range of different cognitive functions like brain processing speeds, reasoning and vocabulary.  The memory of specific events from the past, or episodic memory, is especially enhanced among busy people, they report.  

Psychologist Brent Small, director of the University of South Florida's School of Aging Studies, said the results are “in line with a large body of research suggesting that older adults who are actively engaged in cognitive stimulating activities are more likely to perform better on standard cognitive tasks.”

“This paper extends that work by examining the concept of busyness,” adds Small, who wasn't involved in the new research.    

But the strong correlation shown between busyness and brain function also raises an intriguing chicken-and-egg question: Does busyness boost the brain, or might people with better cognitive powers be more likely to keep themselves busy?

Festini and colleagues tested 330 people, healthy individuals aged 50 to 89 who were participating in an ongoing, comprehensive study of age-related changes in brain function called the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study. They first measured participants' busyness with a survey asking questions about their activities. Sample questions include how often people had so many things to do that they went to bed late or missed meals, and how often they had too many things to do in a day to get them all done.  

The scientists then evaluated brain function for each individual with a battery of tests, performed in the lab and at home, to evaluate processing speed, working memory, episodic long-term memory, reasoning and crystallized knowledge (or the ability to use skills and knowledge gained over time).

Evaluations of processing speed, for example, included comparing strings of numbers to find differences between them or quickly matching up numbers to symbols in a code. Working memory tests included computer games that asked players to remember which box out of a large group held a hidden ball, or to recall the order in which they'd been shown a number of visual patterns. 

Comparing the two sets of results showed a strong relationship between busyness and cognition and, perhaps surprisingly, that the relationship didn't change with age but instead remained consistent from ages 50 to 89. “We think it's informative that we see similar relationships between busyness and cognition throughout middle age and older adulthood,” Festini says. “You might expect to see larger differences in old age when there's more change going on with cognition, but we found that the relationship was consistent across our sample.” The current study focused on adults 50 to 89 because this range more closely matched other studies co-author Denise Park had conducted, but Festini says she sees similar relationships in all adult's brains, aged 20 and up.

It might also have been expected that busy people would show higher levels of stress to the detriment of brain function, Festini notes. “Stress has been shown to have negative impacts on cognition and the brain,” she says. But, at least among this group, if busier members were indeed more stressed, any negative impacts produced by that stress appear to have been outweighed by the benefits of busyness.

Still, Festini cautions, being very busy may well produce as yet unmeasured negative effects. Distractability, for example, wasn't measured in this test format and it may well plague those who burn the candle at both ends. 

The test also wasn't designed to tackle the intriguing question of why the relationship between busyness and cognition exists at all. 

Do people with better cognitive functions simply tend to lead busier lives? Or might a busier lifestyle boost the brain's cognitive powers by engaging people more frequently in the kinds of learning experiences, from iPad instruction to theater training, that research is increasingly showing to produce cognitive benefits? Might there exist a mutual feedback loop in which each option reinforces the other?

Small notes that his own work has found that changes in lifestyle activities have an interesting two-way relationship with cognition. His team tracked older adults' participation in physical activities like jogging or gardening, social activities like going out or visiting friends, and cognitive activities like using a computer or playing bridge, and whether that participation changed over time.

“We found evidence that lifestyle activities buffered cognitive decline, but that older adults who were experiencing declines gave up lifestyle activities.”

Another intriguing possibility is that new learning improves cognitive abilities, and that the busy among us may have more opportunities to learn new things because they more frequently engage in challenging tasks and situations that appear to help keep the brain sharp.

The new results may support that idea, which has been explored in previous research including other studies in Park's lab at the UT Dallas Center for Vital Longevity.  

“We think these results are consistent with some experimental work that has assigned people to learn challenging new skills like quilting and digital photography,” Festini says. “Those studies found cognitive benefits after a three-month period of intense new learning.”

If this theory turns out to be correct, scientists might devise ways to manipulate the effect and produce structured activities that promote cognitive health. In the meantime, the over-scheduled can at least take some solace that their busy lifestyles appear to go hand in hand with better brain function.  

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