It looks as if we’ve all got to stop humblebragging about being too busy. Researchers have studied the condition and found that it can be good for your brain.
“The Busier the Better” reads the headline of the study, published Tuesday, in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. “Greater Busyness Is Associated with Better Cognition.”
Researchers from the University of Texas, Dallas and the University of Alabama looked into the effects of busyness after noticing that despite endless conversation on the topic, “little scientific work has been done to empirically investigate the construct of busyness and its associations.”
Lead author Sara Festini, a postdoctoral scientist at the University of Texas, Dallas, said that while prior studies have shown that learning new skills can increase mental function, she wondered whether the stress associated with busyness would outweigh any benefits.
The good news for working moms and others who always feel pressed for time: It didn’t seem to.
“Although it was possible for busyness to have negative relationships with cognition, our study shows favorable associations between busyness levels and mental function,” Festini said.
Researchers recruited 330 healthy men and women ages 50 to 89 years old from the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study and asked questions including: “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?”
Based on the answers, researchers computed a “busyness score,” and participants were given tests aimed at measuring processing speed, working memory, episodic long-term memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge.
They viewed two strings of numbers and had to determine whether they were the same or different. They looked at an array of boxes on a computer screen and had to maintain the location of a blue token in working memory for accurate performance. They read aloud 12 words that were presented one at a time on a computer screen. Immediately after the word list, participants were asked to recall as many words as possible.
The conclusion: “Higher levels of busyness were associated with better cognition in adults aged 50-89.”
The biggest effects were observed for “episodic memory,” or the memory of autobiographical events, the researchers found.
“Individuals who reported greater day-to-day busyness tended to have better processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge, and these relationships persisted after controlling for age.”
What the study did not examine was causality: Is cognitive function improved by all that busyness, or can only people with good cognitive function in the first place be very busy?
Elizabeth Kensinger, a cognitive neuroscientist at Boston College, who was not involved in the study, said she was glad the researchers used real-life busyness to look at an increasingly important societal issue.
“Older adults are bombarded with information about how they need to be doing crossword puzzles and learning new languages to keep their minds active,” she said. But this study shows “that all the things people already do, like keeping track of medication, or picking up their grandchildren [from activities] can provide perhaps those same cognitive benefits.”
The study was not all bad news for people with leisure time: Some types of cognition may suffer when subjects are too busy.
“Most notably,” the study acknowledged, “busyness may negatively impact prospective memory.” It can also make people more distracted, and, the authors admitted, “high levels of busyness may limit time for relaxation or self-reflection.”Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.