The word “busy” doesn’t exactly have a pleasant ring to it.
In fact, it might be your go-to excuse for turning down drinks after work with coworkers, the reason you say no to a volunteer opportunity, or why you’ve never learned to play guitar. But what if filling up your day could actually lead to increased brain function?
Busyness and the brain
A study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience tested more than 300 adults, ages 50 to 89, to determine whether a correlation exists between busyness and cognition. Their results were surprising
Since busyness is largely subjective — time spent occupied, engaged, and not at leisure — respondents discussed how often they had too much to do and whether tasks affected their bedtime, for example. Researchers then tested respondents on processing speed, working memory, episodic memory (long-term recollection of specific events), reasoning, and crystallized knowledge (understanding formed from prior learning and past experiences).
In short, the study determined keeping your brain engaged can boost skills like problem solving, language, imagination, perception, and planning, later in life.
Impaired cognition can be costly
While we often worry about saving enough for retirement, we rarely consider our capacity to manage that money once we get there. According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, retirees with even mild forms of cognitive impairment can struggle with financial decisions, potentially opening themselves up to fraud.
Advanced cognitive impairment can even affect our loved ones. More than 15 million Americans are caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s or other type of dementia. In 2015, caregivers of people with dementias provided an estimated 18.1 billion hours of unpaid care, valued at $221.3 billion.
Even the more reason to keep your brain busy. That said, there are limits to everything.
The stress factor
With all the mental benefits busy lifestyles bring, it’s important to avoid spreading yourself too thin.
“On the other hand, busyness could be detrimental to cognition if it heightens stress substantially, as prolonged stress is harmful to the central nervous system,” the study notes.
Busyness often carries a negative connotation. High levels of engagement can mean less time for relaxation, self-examination, and brain recharging. Plus, you’re more likely to multitask when busy, the perfect breeding ground for distractions.
Chances are you already knew that. Answering an email in the middle of a phone call as you nibble your cold lunch is never ideal.
Yin and yang
As Mr. Miyagi taught us: The key is finding balance.
What this study didn’t discuss — and what may be near impossible to test — is how busyness correlates with enjoyment.
If you’re stressed and daydreaming about other ways to spend your time, it might be best to re-evaluate your priorities. On the other hand, spending time learning a new hobby and going to bed each night fulfilled can be rewarding.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with testing the waters. Try saying “yes” and seeking new opportunities, because you never know what might make your brain happy.
Things to Consider:
• Understand that you’re never too old to stop learning. Stay curious.
• Be aware of the thin line between a full schedule and overextending yourself.
• Keep the older people in your life engaged socially.