Does a Busy Lifestyle Improve Memory?

June 10, 2016

Did an active schedule help or hinder cognitive skills such as memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge in a group of adults aged 50-89 years?

A new study from researchers in Texas and Alabama suggests that a busy lifestyle in older adults could help improve and sustain memory. The research report appeared in the journal Frontiers in Aging Research.

Prior research suggests that performing mentally challenging tasks can help older adults retain memory, but what about those individuals who are busy as part of their general lifestyle?

“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,” noted Denise Park, one of the study authors.

Led by Sara B. Festini of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, the investigators wanted to test the effects of an engaged lifestyle on cognition. They studied 330 adults between the ages of 50 to 89 who were participants in the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study (DLBS). The DLBS is a large research project that aims to study the healthy brain in adults, in the decades from age 20 to 90. More than 500 individuals enrolled in the study, and they are evaluated every four years.

In this particular sub-analysis of the DLBS, subjects completed several tests, including of working and long-term memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge (such as vocabulary). The cognitive tests were given over 2 days, in 2- to 3-hour sessions per day.

Study participants also completed the Martin and Park Environmental Demands Questionnaire (MPED). This is a self-report instrument designed to measure day-to-day events experienced by adults between the ages of 35 to 84. The busyness assessment included questions such as “How busy are you during an average day? How often do you have too many things to do each day to actually get them all done? How often do you have so many things to do that you go to bed later than your regular bedtime?” Participants rated each question on a scale of 1-5.

Overall, Festini and colleagues found that greater busyness corresponded with better cognition.  They measured the greatest effects for episodic memory; including knowledge of events, times, and places. Busy individuals also had better processing speed for memory, and superior working memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge.

The correspondence of busyness and better cognition was consistent in adults of all ages, from 50-89. Other research studies have shown that new learning retains neurons in the hippocampus, which the authors suggested as one possible mechanism for the results observed. The hippocampus processes episodic memory in particular, as well as the transition of short-term to long-term memory.

The authors noted, however, that the results are a correlation, so it is not clear whether busyness improves cognitive or if people with better mental abilities tend to engage in more activities. In their published report they noted “Although correlational in nature, these results are in line with an engagement framework, and they have implications for the usefulness of engagement training programs. Additional experimental work should be conducted to determine if manipulations of busyness influence cognition in a similar manner.”

Future studies from this research group may focus on whether cognition improves in people who increase their activity and which types of activities are most useful.

Festini and colleagues emphasized the likely benefits of an active lifestyle, noting “Overall, our findings offer encouragement to maintain active, busy lifestyles throughout middle and late adulthood.”

Reference: Festini SB, et al. The busier the better: greater busyness is associated with better cognition. Front Aging Neurosci. 17 May 2016.